Sunday, April 18, 2021

We portray disabilities to make the able feel good


How do we portray disabled people? One student finds that we often portray them inaccurately and in ways that impair our ability to include them in a diverse society.

A student at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, says she’s tired of people and the media misrepresenting the array of disabilities people have for the sole purpose of making able-bodied people “look open-minded or charitable.”

“Disabled Americans deal with this kind of poor representation daily,” writes Emmi Dempsey in The Trojan Times, the student newspaper at the high school. She was referring to a cover story in the December 2015 issue of Interview Magazine, which featured an “art spread” in which Kylie Jenner, the youngest member of an infamous family, is in a wheelchair in a sexy outfit.

When an able-bodied person like Ms Jenner uses a disability in a way that doesn’t truly reflect the lives of disabled people, it’s not edgy, raw, or bold, she writes, but offensive.

“We have Donald Trump mocking a handicapped reporter in one of his speeches and refusing to apologize,” she writes. “Making a mistake does not make you retarded. Having your locker not looking like trash is not the same as having OCD.”

Ms Jenner has been running an anti-bullying campaign, using the hashtag #IAmMoreThan, and Ms Dempsey finds this photo shoot hypocritical.

Other experts have gone so far as to say that able-bodied people should refrain from portraying disabled people. Writes Scott Jordan Harris on

Consider “Glee,” a TV show unmistakably self-satisfied with its inclusiveness. Its makers would never have considered having Rachel, the female lead, played by a man in drag. They would not have considered having Mercedes, the most prominent black character, played by a white actress in blackface. But when they cast Artie, the main disabled character, they chose an able-bodied actor and had him sit in a wheelchair and ape the appearance of a disabled person.

For art’s sake, in other words, we don’t grant disabled people the same right of protection we afford African-Americans. In Shakespeare’s time, we didn’t give this level of protection to women either, denying them the roles of female actors in plays.

“When I see an able-bodied actor, even one as superb Daniel Day-Lewis, playing a great figure in the struggle for disability rights, such as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, I feel the same way many black people would feel watching Day-Lewis play Malcolm X,” he writes.

A pretend photo shoot is very different from a movie, but the question I ask is this: Is the difference one of quality or just a matter of degree? Plus, I admit it may be oversimplifying people’s feelings to put portraying a character with a disability on the same level as blackface today or men in drag during Shakespeare’s time, but this one student didn’t think so.

“Trivializing the real emotions and sentiment of those who actually experience disability for the sake of a fashion shoot is wrong,” Ms Dempsey writes. “My disability is not a prop. I am tired of the ignorance and lack of human understanding. The story of Kylie Jenner is one of the many stories of ableism in society, and it needs to come to an end.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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