This essay was originally written for and published on the blog The Squeaky Wheelchair. The author is a Governing Board member for the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN).
In our society, we hear all kinds of talk about diversity and cultural pride. But often, disability pride is notably excluded from these discussions, although we are the largest minority in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, disability pride in our youth is difficult to develop seeing as very few positive images are provided in our media saturated world. Just a few weeks ago, performers J. Cole and Drake had to issue an apology for calling their competitors "autistic, retarded." Using disability as a ready made equals sign for negative qualities perpetuates the idea that there is something "wrong" with disabled people, and feeds into the idea that disabilities are traits to be ashamed of.
Inclusion of disabled characters in books, movies, and plays is rare, and if it happens, the impairment is usually used as a symbol of evil and bitterness, as in the case of good old Captain Hook. On another note, many disabled characters are "cured" by the end of the story, or at least dreaming about it, when in reality, most of us remain disabled throughout life and still lead happy, successful existences.
Think of the Secret Garden. Colin, the little boy who uses a wheelchair, is not only magically healed, but develops a winning personality in the absence of his disability. Think of Artie, from Glee. While it is widely believed that Fox hit a home run with Artie, but actually, Artie's presence reinforced a lot of unoriginal attitudes about living with a disability. One of the only episodes that addresses his disability shows him dreaming about dancing on his feet. Had Fox really wanted to be original, they could have portrayed Artie as facing challenges, but perhaps made inaccessibility, discrimination, and ignorance a problem, not the fact that Artie cannot use his legs.
How do you think it makes young people with disabilities feel when their very being is used as an example of flaw and tragedy? From where are they to draw their self-image when people who look and live like they do are absent from the diversity spectrum, even within self esteem campaigns? Take for example The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. The campaign comes from a place that is pure of heart, for certain, in its attempt to include real women instead of models, but even among these "real women" there are clear expectations about who fits the definition of beauty. Sarah N. Heiss notes in the Disability Studies Quarterly that the featured real bodies are "firm and hairless"(2011). There are no signs of wrinkles and if you look for a physically disabled woman among these "voices of resistance", you won't find one. Again, the message that people need to embrace unconventional beauty does not seem to include young people with disabilities. Oops. If we are to raise a disability proud generation, we must plant the seeds from a young age. We need to teach self love before the negative portrayals of our community assault the chance of finding body peace.
When we teach our children about civil rights movements, we need to be sure they know Justin Dart and Ed Roberts, the great disability rights crusaders, as readily as they know Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Our colleges and universities need to accept people with disabilities as part of the vision of a diverse campus. We need to dream of a world where children aren't trained to see their access needs as an inconvenience, and teach them to fix inequalities, not their bodies.
Being disability proud does not mean a perpetual smile or the denial of challenges as a disabled person. It does not mean never complaining about the joint pains your disability causes, or never wishing you could shower without a personal assistant. However, it does mean knowing that people with disabilities have a colorful history, a thriving culture, and a worthy seat at the table when talking about diversity. It does mean helping our youth with disabilities to know they are created with as much care and artistry as any other person. Making this a reality is an essential step in being sure that young people with disabilities can envision themselves working, going to school, having a family, or whatever it is that makes them happy.
I conclude with a look at two popular photos on Facebook [Ed. refer to photos above]. The first shows an old woman seated in a wheelchair looking at her shadow on the wall. Her shadow appears as a young, able-bodied dancer and the caption reads: How others see you is not important, how you see yourself means everything. Yes, how you see yourself means everything, and by suggesting that a person in a wheelchair should see herself according to the conventional standards, rejecting her wheelchair, we can see quite plainly why people struggle to find a sense of pride. The image is both ableist and ageist, in a time when we should be teaching all people, not just those who look like us, to look in the mirror and embrace what they see. The second image shows a young girl dancing in her wheelchair, looking at her reflection just as it is. I hope that one day, our youth will be guided to do the same, and be proud. We have advanced ourselves as a minority, and a human family, when a little girl in a wheelchair can look in the mirror and see... a little girl in a wheelchair. I want all those girls, and boys, for the matter, to look in the mirror. And when they do, I hope they will say boldly, unapologetically, this is me and I am proud of it.
This post was written in honor of the mission of the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN), a youth organization devoted to empowering young disabled leaders across the country. The author is a Governing Board member. To find out more, visit www.nyln.org
References: Heiss, S. (2011). Locating the bodies of women and disability in definitions of beauty: an analysis of Dove's campaign for real beauty. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31.