Well written piece!
Since the passage of the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 many view the struggle of disabled individuals as virtually over, but the sad truth is that the struggle is far from over. Laws set the framework but everyone must do their part to change the culture.
While accessibility is still a major concern, one of the greatest battles still raging is that of image and perception. Below is a hypothetical statement that could be possibly used describe me:
“Michael Mort, 22, is an extraordinary young man who suffers from a genetic disorder called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which has left him confined to a wheelchair and forced to use a ventilator. Michael needs assistance to do most simple tasks but continues to go on regardless. He is truly an inspiration to all.”
Many of you will be surprised to find that the previous statement was actually quite offensive. First of all be wary of terms like extraordinary, they tend to actually separate disabled individuals from society. Calling someone extraordinary for simply living with an impairment sends the message that the person is great for just merely by tolerating their life that doesn’t within the perceived norm. Secondly the phrase “suffers from” sets a tone of pity and paints the person as a helpless victim. Another practice to avoid is referring to assistive devices as something to be confined to or forced to use, these devices actually keep people like myself healthy and part of society. I am grateful for the advancements in technology that allow me to live life. Yet another troubling habit that is shown above is calling attention to what the person cannot do in contrast to their happiness. Just because someone “needs assistance to do most simple tasks” does not mean their quality-of-life is terrible, it is just different. Lastly, inspirational is a tricky term to use when referring to disable people it again separates someone from mainstream society based solely on their impairments. For example a blind person navigating the world is not inspirational it is just their life, if however you’re inspired by something they’ve done outside the fact they are disabled that is perfectly acceptable.
To some it may seem as if these distinctions are just politically correct nonsense but language is in fact the cornerstone of society—the words we say words carry a lot of cultural weight and meaning. Seemingly positive statements similar to the quote above continue to run rampant in today’s media vocabulary despite how hurtful they truly can be. From a fairly young age an average American consumes a staggering amount of information on a daily basis and each thing we watch, read or listen to affects how we see the world. Understanding this fact lets us see how ideas are spread and how misconceptions take root. Even in 2014 the representation of disabled individuals in the mainstream media is still quite poor. Consider how people that use wheelchairs are portrayed, they are mostly shown one of two ways: the bitter victim or the enlightened teacher.
These archetypes obviously only show a very small piece of the human experience which in turn limits the understanding and acceptance in every day life. Virtually every type of impairment that exists is misrepresented with shallow writing or just plain pity. Many disabled characters in movies and television are just used as plot devices and are not fully imagined human beings with complex emotions. Another unsettling observation is that many highly acclaimed, award-winning portrayals of people with impairments are played by non-disabled actors while actually disabled actors, with a few exceptions are excluded from the television and film industry. I feel that it’s extremely important to represent the wide array of people on this planet through arts and entertainment. It has been proven time and again that children are much more receptive of the world’s diversity, so it is crucial that we immerse kids as young as possible to the range of humanity. Some of the greatest disabled characters can be found in entertainment aimed towards younger audiences such as Nemo from Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo or Toph from the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series.
We must strive toward an age where each and every child feels excepted and the suffocated notion of “normal” has been erased. Hope for a brighter future rests on the shoulders of children but we must learn and do better now in order to teach them. The first step in any journey begins in our minds. Wake up—be mindful of the information you receive and the implications of your words.