Superpowers and Suicide: The Spectrum of Disabilities in Popular Culture
“Back in the early 2000s, Nickelodeon debuted a show called Pelswick. The series followed a teenage boy named Pelswick Eggert going through the eighth grade and using a wheelchair. Created by irreverent cartoonist (and quadriplegic) John Callahan, the show depicted life from Pelswick’s perspective, with the lens never all the way on or all the way off his disability.
The first episode involves Pelswick being denied a chance to go on a camping trip because his school is not zoned to handle accidents he might incur due to his chair. He says from the start, “I don’t get camping. You bring bad-tasting food into the forest, sleep in a garbage bag with a door, just so you can wake up with a line of ants up your nose.” Still, he liked the idea of hanging out with his friends and roasting marshmallows with his crush, Julie, and is somewhat disappointed. In a furor to advocate on his behalf, some friends and family begin lobbying and protesting, and the trip is cancelled for everyone. When Pelswick speaks on his own behalf, he explains that he never wanted to ruin anyone else’s fun, and the camping trip becomes a backyard camping party that everyone enjoys.
The show sometimes included these disability-based storylines, but they were never the standard. Just as often, episodes centered on normal teenager issues. My absolute favorite was one in which Pelswick derides (in front of his friends) a popular boy band called N’Talented, but pretends to enjoy them to impress Julie. When his ruse is discovered, she is furious and throws a CD at him, asking “Why don’t you listen to them before you make a judgment?” When he does, he discovers that he really does love their music, and he shamefully hides it for fear that his peers will ridicule him. As a longtime N*SYNC fan, I related.”
Headline image: The photograph features three children in blue capes playing and laughing outdoors. A light-skinned child using a walker is on the left, a light-skinned child with glasses and a hearing aid stands in the center, and a dark-skinned child is laughing and using a wheelchair.]