Disability Images Are Rarely About Disability

Kestrell not only pointed this out to us, she was kind enough to guest-blog it:

The title of the post is my thesis in a nutshell, but I want to go on record as stating I did not pay anyone to create this image which so perfectly illustrates my point.

wheelchair chicken

For those of you who may be, as I am, visually-impaired, the picture is of a person in a chicken suit sitting in a wheelchair in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. This image is part of a PETA campaign to protest cruelty to animals, a cause which I support. However, the ways in which the disabled body is appropriated and exploited in order to rouse pity and horror reaffirms stereotypes about people with disabilities. This is precisely why one of the mottos of the disability rights movement is “No Pity” (refer to Joseph P. Shapiro’s book No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement).

There are two specific points which I wish to make about such media images.

1. These images rarely, if ever, inform the reader/viewer about the everyday lived experience of being disabled.
2. These images rarely, if ever, inform the reader/viewer about the subject being portrayed in such images, but instead rely on evoking emotional reactions such as pity, horror, or a sense of tragedy.

Stem cell research, genetic counseling, prosthetic limbs for amputees–these are the technologies in the news which intersect over and over with the trope of disability as tragedy, sometimes even unbearable tragedy. Kevin Leitch, a blogger and father to a daughter with autism, is maintaining an online petition to protest the film Autism Every Day which frames being the parent of a disabled child as a joyless existence full of endless work and depression, an existence where thoughts of suicide and even infanticide are considered to be comprehensible instead of reprehensible.

This leads me to one of the most consistent framings of disability: disability as contextualized within the traditional family. Have you ever noticed how many of those “courageous blind student” or “impaired athlete” stories dwell in loving detail on the sacrifices the family makes in order to make sure the child is mainstreamed? Not only do these images promote the idea that commercial services and social institutions should not feel obligated to provide equal opportunity to disabled students because, hey, they have families who can do this stuff for them, right? (“Don’t you have a sighted person who can fill out that form for you?” the person behind the desk asks me) but it also promotes images of traditional families with a father, a mother, and siblings.

The promotion of traditional social roles is also at the heart of another film on disability, Murderball. Talk about macho–not only do these men live for aggressive competition, they all have pretty (able-bodied) girlfriends who fulfill the traditional feminine role and stand behind their man (no pun intended).

I don’t want to give the impression that all appropriations of disability are, at least in my opinion, negative. I am currently finishing a thesis which uses science-fiction media to explore images of disability and technology. What originally fascinated me about the subject was what I perceived as a trend occuring over the past twenty years in using disabled protagonists in feminist and queer SF. Once again, we get the disabled body intersecting with other themes, such as gender and/or sexuality. What is the significance of this trend? I’m not sure. In regard to technology specifically, I think that perhaps individuals who possess bodies which cultural norms label “non-normative” grapple more with the idea that technology, including biotechnology, can “fix” them (“Why not just take a diet pill, or get cosmetic surgery? Don’t you want to be normal and happy?” asks that insidious little voice of advertising), and thus the siren call of technology represents a much more personal struggle in regard to identity. This pressure to let technology “fix” you by “fixing” or conforming your body is one which disabled people hear all the time.

Additionally, however, I am reminded of all the feminist revisionist fairy tales which reclaim the non-normative body as a locus of power. Helene Cixous’ essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1976), encouraged women to create their own stories by using their own bodies as a medium for communication, writing with and through their own bodies instead of letting men impose meanings upon the female body. So while the works of Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon might use disabled characters to show individuals with non-normative bodies struggling against the prejudices of the cultures they live in, such stories also contain a subtext which explodes the idea that the “normative” body is as artificial a construct as the “non-normative” one, and that a truly “normal” body doesn’t exists at all.

I leave you with this one thought: next time you read/view a story, or an advertisement, which claims to be about disability, ask yourself, what is this story really about?

Body Impolitic

6 thoughts on “Disability Images Are Rarely About Disability

  1. Is there a chance that the person wearing the chicken costume in a wheelchair is in fact a wheelchair user involved in this protest?

    (Which does not invalidate your point about appropriation and exploitation; but there is the question of agency.)

  2. The problem is that Disability has always been percieved as a bad, regretful thing. That’s not to say I love my disability (I’m a wheelchair user). However while I’m sitting here My life isn’t in shreds because of the fact that I’m not on office chair with wheels but a wheelchair…

    And actually you know, I kinda like the fact that I stand out in a crowd (metaphorically).

    But what makes me the most murderously angry is parents of disabled children that you see in the media who complain that ther lives are “blighted because of their child” and ohh so very hard.

    Let me clarify before I get mobbed.

    I do not deny that its hard, painful, expensive – whatever. BUT how do you think the child feels being labled such a burden? Only being seen as a problem to be sorted, or an issue to be dealt with?

    I could say more but I’m getting upset myself.

  3. D. and Kay, thanks for helping to clarify these important issues. I’ve had a low opinion of PETA for a long time (among other things, they’ve done some virulently inaccurate fat-hating campaigns, implying that no vegetarians are fat), so that’s about what I expected.

    George, I really appreciate your personal take on this. And of course it’s my opinion that no parent should ever make any child feel like a burden. I’m sorry you have to deal with something so upsetting.

  4. Elsenet (in a friends-locked LiveJournal, so I’m not linking) someone said that he feels the same way about dealing with some religious people as he would if forced to deal with the mentally ill.

    In response, I pointed out that while he (and I) may find some mentally ill people hard to be around, I doubt he could live in even a middle-sized town and not see any mentally ill people. I added that I’d no more walk away from all my friends who suffer from depression than from all those who have mobility or hearing problems.

    I forgot, when writing that, that the world is full of people who think it’s entirely normal and justifiable to walk away from friends and family because of disabilities.

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