Tag Archives: depictions of disability

Recommended Reading for November 2, 2010

Siddharta Mukherjee for the New York Times Magazine: The Cancer Sleeper Cell

In fact, this view of cancer — as tenaciously persistent and able to regenerate after apparently disappearing — has come to occupy the very center of cancer biology. Intriguingly, for some cancers, this regenerative power appears to be driven by a specific cell type lurking within the cancer that is capable of dormancy, growth and infinite regeneration — a cancer “stem cell.”

staticnonsense at Some Assembly Required: The Abstracts of the Mind and the Schizophrenic Metaphor

One of the elements of psychosis is what is called cognitive disorganization, or formal thought disorder. This can lead the brain to think in more abstract forms. This is also where people get the idea that those with schizotypy are artistic, when we may not exactly see ourselves as such. Much like other elements of psychosis, this is heavily impacted by stress levels. Seeing as I was in an abusive relationship at the time, one that amplified all of the symptoms of my mental illnesses, one can imagine that this cognitive disorganization was also amplified.

XLII at Aceldama (Tumblr): Everyone makes me want to puke

no, helen keller jokes aren’t funny. she rose to great prominence and is a role model for all people with similar disabilities. making fun of her is making fun of us and telling us that even if we become powerful, people will just see us for our disabilities and as a joke.

NPFP Guest Poster at Raising My Boychick: Hold This Thread as I Walk Away

People try to joke with me, saying they wish they had that ability like I do. Most of the time I just laugh it off. I don’t expect them to understand. After all, if you’re not there, you can’t experience what’s going on in the world around you, right? It can’t affect you.


I wish. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Joyojeet Pal at Yahoo! Accessibility blog: Disability in the Media: Issues for an Equitable Workplace

The canonical western cinema has followed a few dominant patterns regarding the portrayal of people with disabilities. Characters could typically be pitiable (Coming Home), burdensome (Whose life is it anyway?), sinister (Dr. Strangelove), or unable to live a successful integrated life (Gattaca). The fundamental underlying theme has been the disabled character’s maladjustment or incompatibility in the public sphere, effectively highlighting what we can be referred to as an “otherness” from the non-disabled population.

If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading at disabledfeminists dot com. Please note if you would like to be credited, and under what name/site.

Creative Work: Circle Stories, by Riva Lehrer

Riva Lehrer is a disabled painter who produces, among many other things, depictions of disabled bodies:

For Lehrer, the disabled body is intensely beautiful—memorable, unexpected, and lived in with great self-awareness. These are not bodies that are taken for granted or left unexplored. This beauty has often stayed unseen despite the constant, invasive public stare. Disability is complex; it demands images that combine hard facts with unexpected gifts. (source)

Her collection ‘Circle Stories’ consists of a series of portraits of prominent people with disabilities:

The term “Circle Stories” refers to multiple aspects of the project. The portraiture method is a circular one, involving extensive interviews with each participant, in which we talk about their lives, work, and understanding of disability. Through this collaborative process, we seek imagery that is a truthful representation of their experience.

In addition, the circle of the wheelchair is the nearly universal symbol of disability, a wheel that transforms the ordinary object of the chair into the mark of physical and social difference.

Some images from ‘Circle Stories’:

Susan Nussbaum, a woman seated on a balcony outdoors with a distant view of the ocean. She is gazing intently at the painter and a blanket is draped over her right shoulder.

Susan Nussbaum, an active member of the theatre community as well as a disability rights activist.

Rebecca Maskos, a woman with disabilities seated on a snowy stone wall with a blue bird hovering above her.

Rebecca Maskos is a German disability rights activist and artist.

“The body is the first story; our text of first meeting. I see you, you see me, skin, bone, eyes, hair: assumptions pour forth like a rip in a dam. See the thousand imprints of sex, nation, money, clues to the familiar and exotic. We read and decide in eyeblink time. When bone and blood show an unfamiliar shape, the judgments freeze into a first, rigid wall between you and I. So paint the story of surface and bone explicit, unavoidable, and ask what did you fear then and what do you think now.” (source)

This piece isn’t from ‘Circle Stories’ but I love it too much not to share:

A woman with disabilities in the woods in autumn. She is surrounded by bones and a paintbox lies next to her.

‘Into the Yellow Woods.’ I’m in a rather dark mood right now and this painting speaks to me.

You can see more of Lehrer’s work at her website!

Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.

One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.

And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!

Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.

Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.

The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!

I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.

Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or  how he acquired it.

These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?

When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?

Today In Journalism: Do You Feel Special? Well? Do You?!

Content warning: This post includes a discussion of an article that frames disability in extremely patronising, offensive, and infantalising objectifying (note) terms. There will be selections from said article quoted for the  purpose of criticism and discussion.

I’ve been noticing an uptick in really, really bad articles about disability lately. I was puzzling last night over why the mainstream media has suddenly taken an interest in disability, and someone pointed out that the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is rapidly approaching, which means that we can probably expect more really bad articles about disability in the US over the next month or so.

I suppose it’s too much to ask that the media consider contracting people with disabilities to write articles about disability, or that the media consider educating its journalists so that they can cover disability more effectively and appropriately. Oh, wait. No it’s not. There are, after all, style guides published by professional organisations providing information about how to cover disability. It’s not like people with limited experience have no resources to use when preparing articles on disability. They are just choosing not to use these resources.

We read so you don’t have to.

Up today, ‘Inside the life of a person with disabilities,’ a feature that recently ran at an Ohio ABC affiliate. This article and the accompanying video read like the journalist closely read haddayr’s ‘Plucky Cripples Don’t Let Lack of Bingo Card Stop Them‘ and my guide to talking about disability in the media, took careful notes, and then deliberately tried to hit every possible offensive trope. Really, my hat is off to Susan Ross Wells, the reporter who prepared this piece. It takes remarkable talent to be able to fit all of this into one short local interest piece. This a journalist who will be Going Places, I can sense it.

Here’s the lede:

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you couldn’t see or if you were confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk. It’s a reality for people living with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean these special people can’t lead happy, fulfilling lives.

I am rarely surprised by things in the media anymore. I pretty regularly think that I’ve seen it all. And then one of my Google Alerts has to deliver something on a whole new level, like this article. This lede manages to hit variations on ‘She didn’t let her disability stop her!’ ‘Confined to a wheelchair’ ‘Special’ and, of course, ‘…proving you can achieve anything if you really try!’ all in two sentences!

The article profiles an institutionalised woman with disabilities, making sure to tell us that her mother thinks of her as a ‘joy’ and informing us that the mother feels like ‘placing’ her daughter was, well: ‘the hardest thing that I ever had to do, but it turned out to be the best thing that I did.’ Life in institutions is grand, the article suggests. A barrel of fun times, all the time.

And, of course: ‘She has brought so much out in me as a person, as a mother. She’s brought such joy.’


People ask, sometimes, why we are so angry about depictions of disability in pop culture and the media. Why we can’t just be happy that disability is being covered at all. Articles like this, depictions like this, do absolutely nothing to promote social equality for people with disabilities. They do absolutely nothing to dispel harmful myths and stereotypes. They do absolutely nothing to humanise us. As long as nondisabled people are the ones covering disability for the media, we are going to continue seeing disability framed in these terms. Is it any wonder that ableism is rife when stories like this are the models for thinking about disability, interacting with people with disabilities, and talking about disability that most people encounter?

Depictions of Disability That Make Us Happy

Movie poster from Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon: a night-blue sky with a full moon, and a midnight black dragon with large, pale eyes stares down at a pale, brown haired boy who reaches up to try to touch its face. The poster text reads: Dreamworks [next line] How to Train Your [next line] Dragon [next line] 3D.We took The Kid to the base theatre on Wednesday night to see Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon, which is loosely adapted from a YA Book series of the same name.

[Tame OYD Review with mild SPOILERS ahead]

It is a story of a teen boy, Hiccup, who lives in the Viking village of Berk, which is on an island. His village of one of fierce dragon slayers, and Hiccup is the only son of the chief, Stoick the Vast. Except, he isn’t really very good at slaying dragons, because he is kind of clumsy (I can relate). Longing to be accepted, despite his awkwardness, among his tribe and the other viking teens, and naturally wanting to win the heart of the beautiful girl, Hiccup wants to be a great dragon slayer, too, until he actually catches one of the fiercest and little-known about breeds of dragon, the dreaded Night Fury.

Just when Hiccup has the chance to Slay the Dragon, he realizes that he doesn’t have the heart to kill the creature that looks up at him and surrenders its will in such a helpless manner. He lets the dragon go, and in turn, the dragon doesn’t kill him, which goes against everything he has ever been taught. Slowly over time he earns the dragon’s trust, and learns that that the reason the dragon hasn’t left is because part of his tail has been lost when Hiccup captured him.

Using his knowledge of the forge, Hiccup fashions a sort of prosthetic half-tail for the dragon, and together he and the dragon learn how to fly together, because the dragon now needs assistance using the new tail piece.

There are many themes in the movie that I am not going to excuse. If you think by now that you are going to see a Dreamworks movie that has a fair representation of girl characters, you are wrong, as they even manage to throw in some boob jokes, and once again, the main character has lost his mother in another ridiculous excuse to not have to write one in or to draw out some sympathy for him. Mothers in pop-culture and YA literature/movies are never to be known and always to be mourned. If you think there is anyone who is non-white in this movie, think again. And if anyone tries to excuse it by telling me that “This is a Viking village!”, I can tell you that there were probably more non-white people around Villages than actual dragons, so they could have maybe thrown a bone in there, especially since they had America Ferrara voicing the female lead, because I think that might have been a nice nod to her character. (But at least she wasn’t a wilting lily of a wee girl.)

But I can tell you that I don’t have to love every aspect of things that affect my marginalization to be impressed when something actually goes right once in a while.

At the end of the Epic Battle (no I won’t spoil that), Hiccup loses his foot, and is fitted with a prosthetic one made in the forge, and other than two brief mentions of it, and a heart warming moment when his dragon helps him start to adapt to learning to use it, that was pretty much all the attention given to it. Hiccup, being a mechanical tinkerer, says he might play around with it and improve upon it, but, no one makes a Big Deal. While this might not be realistic and probably dismisses the reality of dealing with that type of loss (and in the mythical world they created this is a common thing they deal with), I liked that this loss of Hiccup’s foot was not treated as The Worst! Thing! Evah! Hiccup actually just goes out, and climbs aboard his dragon. Life as usual. In fact, his fancy new foot fits better into his riding harness, the one he made for the prosthetic tail for his dragon.

I like it when we can see people with disabilities in a positive light. Moreover, I like it more when the characters in pop-culture around this character aren’t reacting in a way that makes it seem as if this is the worst tragedy to ever hit their lives. They are Vikings, and in the long view of things, they have managed to avert a major crisis and now have dragons for pets, which is pretty cool. Stoick is thrilled to have his son, the person, with him, and the depiction of the girl is still…well, painfully stereotypical.

But this depiction of disability, it made me very happy.

Why I Am Not Riled About Every Instance of Crip Drag

This post has been percolating for a while.

A question that I (and other FWD contributors, and other social justice activists in general) get asked a lot in the context of discussions about pop culture is “why aren’t you upset about [this]?” “Why are you focusing on XYZ when someone else did ABC over here?” And I’m really tired of this. I’m tired of it because, well, for one thing, I do find many things problematic and I write about them; you can see some examples of discussions about harmful representations of disability in pop culture right here in the FWD archives written by myself and other FWD contributors. For another thing, I am not actually up on every single aspect of pop culture, and thus sometimes I am not aware of things which I would probably write about if I knew about them, but I don’t.

But let’s set this aside for a moment.

Let’s examine the premise there. This argument comes up in response to critiques of disability in pop culture. It’s often accompanied with the assumption that the writer doesn’t think that it’s ok to portray disability in pop culture ever, or that the writer thinks that only disabled actors should be in disabled roles. This line of thinking, which focuses on which representations of disability people happen to be critiquing at a given time, ignores the structural nature of the critique. It is also accompanied by the implication that it is necessary to do everything at once when it comes to critiquing pop culture.

It also, of course, assumes that the writer is not already writing about the issue which is supposedly not being covered. Which, you know, I find it deeply amusing when people get up in arms because people are “not talking about” something which they DID talk about, often quite recently. FWD contributors have written here and elsewhere about harmful depictions of disability in Lady Gaga’s music, on Glee and 90210, in the currently trendy repurposings of Jane Austen novels, and in the Twilight Saga. That’s just for starters.

And it ignores the fact that not every instance of depiction of disability, including depictions done by able people, pisses disabled activists off, in addition to assuming that all people with disabilities respond in the same way to depictions of disability. In fact, I happen to think that some depictions of disability are great. It’s not the depiction of disability which is offensive, it is the way in which the disability is depicted which can be offensive, and that includes the framing which surrounds it.

Let me repeat this for emphasis: I am not inherently upset by the depiction of disability in pop culture. I am upset about bad depictions of disability which I think are harmful. What bothers me are bad tropes; one dimensional, stereotyped characterizations. These characterizations are unimaginative, not transgressive, illuminating, exploratory, or revealing; showing the same thing on endless repeat does not do anything to enrich the larger discussion.

For example, with Glee, I would be annoyed by Artie’s characterization no matter what. But I am furious with the way his character is handled because the creators are framing the show as brave and courageous and breaking down stereotypes and really saying something about disability. Thus, I am holding them to a  higher standard. The creators are making a claim which they are not living up to, and that is a big part of what bothers me about Glee. What bothers me isn’t that there is a disabled character played by an able actor. It’s that there is a troped disabled character played by an able actor in a show which makes sure to pat itself on the back constantly for being progressive. If you don’t consistently subvert a cliche? It’s still just a cliche, people.

Someone recently got on my case for not being up in arms about a theatrical casting decision in which an able actress was cast in a role which is (sometimes) performed in a wheelchair. Note: This is a role which is often played in a wheelchair, but does not need to be. The argument was “well, if you’re opposed to crip drag, you should be angry about this.” This despite the fact that I didn’t even know about it until it was mentioned, but apparently if I am going to critique pop culture, I am required to  know about everything which is going on at all times ever anywhere in the world.

But I wasn’t angry after I did a bit of research to learn more about the actress, the role, and the production. I wasn’t angry because the creators of the production were not making any bold claims about the depiction of disability. I also wasn’t angry because I know casting for live shows is tricky and there are a lot of constraints. Given the limitations of the character and the demands of the role, it would have been very difficult to find a wheelchair user who met the specs for the role. Furthermore, finding a person with disabilities who could deal with the grueling rehearsal and performance schedule while also being suitable for the part? Would have been VERY challenging. So, no, I wasn’t upset at all by the decision to use an able actress.

To return to Glee, I am angry about Artie and about the crip drag because there’s no reason not to use a disabled actor; there are disabled actors who do meet the specs for that role. And I am grumpy because of the claims being made about the show; if Glee wants to congratulate itself for making social commentary, than it actually needs to make that commentary. One really good way to do that would have been to cast a disabled actor in that role. It is the discourse and framing which surround Glee which concern me.

There are lots of instances of crip drag on television right now. Terry O’Quinn, playing John Locke on Lost, is not a wheelchair user. Locke uses a wheelchair at times. Am I angry that they didn’t use a disabled actor? No, I am not, because, again, there are some particular limitations on that role. John Locke is also depicted as extremely physically active in scenes which I think would be very challenging for a part time wheelchair user to do, especially for six years. Not at all unreasonable for the Lost casting crew to make the decision to hire a (presumably) able actor for the role.

I can probably think of other instances of crip drag which are not pissing me off right now, just as I can think of a number of instances in which disabled actors are playing disabled characters whom I think are problematic. See what I did there? This issue is not just about crip drag, it’s about the depiction of disability. If there’s a show in which a disabled actor plays a disabled character and I think that the characterization is troped and harmful, I am not afraid to say so. One instance floats to mind immediately: Lauren Potter playing Becky Jackson on Glee.

Oh, and also, before you tell me I have something “more important to do” than critiquing pop culture: Critiquing pop culture is no more or less important than any of the many things I do, most of which you do not know about. It’s important and valuable to talk about problematic depictions of disability in pop culture because, among many other things, it gets at the origins of some very harmful ideas about disability which are perpetuated in our society. These ideas? Have real world impacts. The same goes for discussions about harmful depictions of women, of people of colour, of trans* people.

I’m also curious to know why it is that social justice activists are constantly being asked why they aren’t critiquing something while at the same time they are informed that they are “just looking for a reason to be offended.”

One further note: I am deeply disturbed by the implication that people critique things because they don’t like them. For the most part, I only write about the things I do like and am interested in. My critiques, and those of many activists? They come from fellow fans of the work under discussion.