If you’re brand new here, you probably have been wondering what’s going on. Instead of disability-related issues, ax-grinding, or political agenda-driving, this newspaper column just features real people with disabilities and their lives.
I say “real” because the mainstream media, in general, have a tendency to portray most everyone with a disability they feature as victims, objects of pity or superheroes, as if having a disability was the worst thing anyone could have and therefore needed an emotional or Rocky Balboa-like story line.
The media portray people with disabilities as victims or objects of pity when they repeatedly say a person “suffers” from a disability or that another is “confined” to a wheelchair, for instance. “Suffer” and “confined” are almost always the reporter’s words and not those of the person featured. As for the former, yes, some people do physically suffer, but many people with disabilities don’t and many view their disability as an asset.
In 2008, I featured Olympian Bruce Jenner (he was Bruce back then), who said about his learning disability, “If I had been an average student or reader, I wouldn’t have needed sports. As time went on, there was always this little dyslexic kid in the back of my head who would try to outwork the next guy. It was part of the process of the makeup of me. I believe I wouldn’t have won gold in the Olympics if not for being dyslexic.”
Also, do wheelchair users really feel “confined” to wheelchairs? Most don’t. Their wheelchair offers mobility and freedom. In truth, most people using a wheelchair feel “confined” when their wheelchair isn’t around.
In terms of superheroes, you often see reporters use words like “inspirational” or “courageous” to describe a person with a disability, yet many I know prefer being viewed as “regular” people and don’t much like those adjectives.
I want my readers to acquire a realistic feel for different people with disabilities and ultimately that must involve breaking stereotypes. People with disabilities aren’t a homogeneous group. The disability “community” has never been unified, but is politically conservative and liberal, rich and poor, old and young, married and not, Dallas Cowboys fans and not. People with disabilities aren’t all alike.
It’s these media-generated stereotypes that often build relational walls between people with disabilities and everyone else, which adds yet another needless layer of inaccessibility for a person with a disability to navigate. That’s something we all don’t need.