Here’s the thing. Generally speaking, in media (movies, tv, books, news articles, documentaries, etc.) people with disabilities are split into two discrete groups. We have our Good Cripples and our Bad Cripples.
The Good Cripple is lovely because it makes able-bodied people feel good. They are kind, docile, self-sacrificing, sans complaint, and above all else, inspirational. You have to face the day’s challenges with a smile on your face and the sunshine behind you. It really helps if you’re plucky. Good Cripples don’t criticize society, or do anything that introduces ideas more complicated than “everyone should be equal and everyone can do anything!” (Look, there’s a reason that Helen Keller’s popular history stops when she’s like 8. They don’t make inspirational plays based on Helen Keller’s social activism.)
The Bad Cripple is at the other end of the spectrum. They’re angry at the world and not very sociable. They may depend on charity or worse, government assistance. (Gasp.) They aren’t touched when a stranger tells them they’re inspirational, they don’t always accept offers to “help”, and they get mad when people ask them questions about their disability. They’re burdensome and unpleasant.
The thing is, it’s really more like the Good Cripple is the fictional PWD and the Bad Cripple encompasses all the real ones. No one is cheerful about a disability 24/7. They’re annoying. They hurt. They make things harder. No one can get through life without assistance of some kind. No one is happy being the world’s teaching tool. And very, very few PWD run a fucking marathon. (Because very few people can! Like that’s not a normal standard. We don’t say “oh, are you a gold medal athlete, stranger-I-just-met? THEN YOU’RE A DISAPPOINTMENT.”) And the idea that we have to overcome our bodies’ limitations to be worth anything is frankly offensive – and not at all realistic.
Because that’s the thing. Watch the narrative. The Bad Cripple is always punished. They die (sometimes by their own hand; they know where they’re not wanted) or they’re evil. No one will love them, that’s for sure; their families consider them a burden and they’re not going to be the romantic interest. They don’t achieve their dreams. They probably won’t even eke out a small happiness for themselves. They don’t deserve it. They haven’t EARNED it by being suitably heartwarming.
And that’s the part that’s so psychologically devastating to the PWD watching. No one wants to be a Bad Cripple. So we push ourselves past endurance. We try to “rise above” our bodies by shredding ourselves and pretending it doesn’t hurt. We smile over gritted teeth when strangers ask us what happened to our legs. We quietly make a choice between pain (and humiliation) or disappointment when we walk into a classroom or an office and it has stairs. (And that’s if the the choice isn’t made for us, if our opportunities aren’t just being quietly taken away.) We shrink and apologize and do our damnedest not to be a burden to anyone.
Because we know what happens to Bad Cripples.
Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. PWD and AB alike watch, and they learn. We learn that we, as PWD, need to earn our personhood. Able-bodied children learn to be gentle with us and impressed with us and to be vicious as soon as we deviate from our roles. That’s if we exist at all in the narrative. Most people just learn that we are invisible, and they’re stunned by the novelty of it, and nervous about the unknown, when they meet us in real life.
Society makes media, and media makes society, and it’s a cycle that’s hostile to change. Still, I like to believe that we’re slowly getting somewhere. And I definitely believe that if we see these messages and we analyze them and we make our choices about whether or not to accept them, we can change the way we think about ourselves and others. (So please do.)