Structures of power, marginalization and oppression value certain permutations of human existence over others. This plays out in the real world in countless ways. It becomes cultural norms that are displayed, reinforced and changed in media. While there are any number of issues with disability representation, today will be about the diversity of disability. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.
On some level, being disabled means that the world isn’t made for you; that some part of you isn’t compatible with the physical structure of the world. There are numerous ways in which someone can be disabled, and even more ways in which different causes can have the same end result. When it comes to media, the most meaningful distinction with causes is being born with a disability versus developing it later in life.
These are radically different experiences, and have radically impact on people. Yet by and large stories will have characters who became disabled, not those who were born disabled.* It’s easy to frame these characters as tragic, how they were stricken down and how they’re trying to overcome this problem. It hits all the emotional beats and has a hint of inspiration porn mixed in. Not only that, but it’s easy to think about how these characters did or didn’t deserve this, how they were just like you and now they’re different. People who were born with disabilities though? They were shuttered away from society and written off, killed off, for most of human history. Those stories deserve to be told, need to be told.
But this isn’t to take away from people who did become disabled after they were born. Their stories matter too; but their stories must be more than clichés for the abled to feel good about themselves. We need to embrace the diversity of disability in all its forms in ways that matter to the disabled.
While it makes sense to treat disability as one broad tent, those who are inside the tent should understand and celebrate the degree of diversity within the tent. Next week, I’ll start looking back on 2015. Till next time.
*I am hard pressed to think of disabled characters but one that always stand out is Toph Beifong from Avatar; the Last Airbender, who is wonderful.