Most of my early days as an angry [young] person revolved around the topic of representation in the media. I would spend hours telling people why it’s important that disabled people play disabled people. Why [the Hollywood film] Me Before You is so dangerously sh***y, or why the movie/book Wonder is really just fluff. It seemed obvious to me that disabled people aren’t inspiration porn, not there to make able-bodied audiences feel all gooey inside. And, really, Me Before You is not cute for having one of the only disabled love interests in popular media kill himself because being disabled is just soooo bad and he’s just such a burden on the woman who miraculously loves him despite his disabled, Sam Claflin body. Honestly, though, if a rich “paralysed” Sam Claflin doesn’t have a chance at love or life, then what should the rest of us do?
Anyway, my point is, these things just aren’t obvious to the people they don’t affect. Because, it’s just a movie, who cares? If it makes people happy, who cares? There literally aren’t disabled actors in our huge population, so who cares?
But, actually, maybe that is a good question to ask, Why should we care?
Well, you’ve guessed it! I’m about to tell you. You see, there’s this cute little thing called internalised ableism (another buzz word, me thinks). Basically, internalised ableism is exactly what it sounds like - being disabled, but also not liking/being afraid of disabled people because of the ableist narrative of our society, consequently disliking a huge part of yourself that you can’t really change. Internalised ableism manifests in many ways; not associating yourself with people “more” disabled than you; shying away from even calling yourself “disabled”; not wanting to date another disabled person (cue the guilt); not liking parts of your body that emphasise your dIsGuStInG disability, and ultimately just constantly trying to hide a part of who you are! Fun! Ultimately, to sum it up in a nifty quote I found in the new Netflix show, Special (a show about a gay disabled person, played by a gay disabled person - the revolution begins!) it kind of leaves you thinking.
“Am I secretly f***** up? Are there like layers of f*****upness inside of me that I don’t even know exist?”
Well, babes, there may well be. But, I’m here as Robin Williams to your Matt Damon telling you that, “it’s not your fault”.
When we are constantly surrounded by messages that we’re not relevant, wanted, capable of love, or that we are a burden defined by our disability, or that we literally just don’t exist, we can’t blame ourselves for struggling to build a healthy identity in the “real world”. If you’re a child and can’t see yourself in any of your favourite movies or shows, then who can teach you to love your disabled self? If you’re a fourteen-year-old and the only disability representation you see is in something like Me Before You, how are you supposed to grow up in a way that enables a healthy loving relationship? How are you supposed to know that you’re worthy of life? And when you’re a young adult aspiring to be in the film industry and able-bodied people take all stories Hollywood will ever let you tell, how are you supposed to make a living doing what you love and what you’re good at?
But, if the mental health of young disabled people isn’t enough to make you care then maybe you should think about the recent headlines in New Zealand about proposed cuts to disability care (which, by the way, may have been ‘cancelled’, but has been happening stealthily for years) or the exclusion of the disabled community in euthanasia debates. Maybe you should think about the fact that disabled people are excluded from compensation under ACC because it would be too ‘costly’.
If you think that our pervasive media culture doesn’t impact on policy decisions like these, then you’re not thinking.