What would Sex and the City have been like if Carrie Bradshaw were in a wheelchair? If Penny from The Big Bang Theory had cerebral palsy? If Meredith Grey strutted down the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital with a walker?
We’ll never know, but that hasn’t stopped me from wondering and constantly looking for someone “like me” in my favorite shows—someone who is in a wheelchair and just wants to scream to the world, “Hey, I’m a woman too! My disability doesn’t change that!” I’m just trying to figure this love and dating thing out too. So why can’t TV—the medium most of us rely on to watch complex, diverse female portrayals—reflect that reality?
I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder that’s resulted in more than 20 surgeries and twice as many hospital stays in my 35 years. My parents raised me to be independent and fearless, and they had a way of normalizing my disability; as I grew up, it became something I didn’t even notice. I may have had a disability, but I wasn’t my disability. It was a part of me rather than something that defined my life.
So as someone obsessed with all things pop culture, I naturally figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to have female characters with disabilities living, working, and loving on the screen. I mean, it should be pretty common, right? After all, there are around 27 million women with disabilities in the United States, but a recent report from GLAAD found that broadcast programming saw a decrease in characters with disabilities over the last two years, from 1.4 to 0.9 percent—and that percentage includes both male and female characters, making the actual number of female characters even lower.
And sadly, when these characters do play a central role, it’s typically in relation to their disability, as if to say, “LOOK! It’s one of them! They’re out and about and living their lives.”
It’s a phenomenon known as inspiration porn—the idea that people with disabilities, by virtue of simply living their day-to-day lives, are somehow inspiration for the able-bodied. I imagine the whole scenario like that column in Us Weekly, you know, Stars—They’re Just Like Us! Only in this case, it would be, People With Disabilities—They’re Just Like Us! They go to work! They take the bus! They go shopping for groceries! They do the laundry!
But in the real world? Women with disabilities exist beyond mere props used to teach some worldly lesson. Having someone who looks like you and faces the same issues you do is so important. We need to be represented, not just as an object meant to be inspiration porn, which is something that’s always made me cringe. Truthfully, the whole phenomenon has always made me feel like an “other,” an outsider who will never belong.
This was especially true when it came to love and dating, which is confusing enough for adolescents, but full of multilayered issues for those with disabilities. In junior high, I’d fill pages and pages in my journal with the same few questions: Why did my disability seem like such a big deal? Why did it seem to scare guys away? Didn’t they know that I was just like them? The one time I went to a school dance in eighth grade, a boy walked past me, put his hand out, and asked, “Want to dance?” Then, he proceeded to laugh. His flippant cruelty stung and made me even more self-conscious of my disability. In that moment, I felt like I was standing out for all the wrong reasons.
As I got older, family and friends would say things like, “Oh, you should try a dating site for people with disabilities.” They meant well, thinking it would be easy for me to relate to someone who understood what I was going through. But that’s not what I heard. I heard this message that there’s no way an able-bodied guy could ever fall for me, so I should just stick to “my people.” Did they mean that? Of course not, but it still hurt.
Take the film Me Before You, for example. The main character is a paraplegic who falls in love with an able-bodied woman. How many times has it been the other way around on TV or in movies, where a woman in a wheelchair falls in love with an able-bodied male and it’s not some unrequited-love situation? Why is it so hard to believe that women with disabilities could be in a relationship with an able-bodied person? I’ve often wondered why those examples are few and far between.
Or, how many examples are there where the plot doesn’t revolve around the character’s disability in some way? This sends the message that a disability is your whole life, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Growing up, seeing characters with disabilities would have been incredibly validating, a confirmation that perhaps I wasn’t so different after all. Female characters with disabilities need to be shown for who they are, not what they are. We’re not there to represent a cause or teach some grand lesson. We’re not there solely to make other characters feel good about themselves, either.
The statistics are sobering, to be sure, but there are examples of shows that have successfully featured characters with a variety of disabilities. The ’90s groundbreaking hit ER features Dr. Kerry Weaver, a successful doctor who just happens to use a cane. More recently, Freeform’s hit Switched at Birth has two characters who are deaf: Melody Bledsoe—played by Marlee Matlin, who is deaf—as well as Daphne Vasquez. And then there’s Becky Jackson on Glee, who has Down syndrome and tackles high school life; one episode of the series also features Betty Pillsbury, a young woman in a wheelchair.
I’ve spent my life sometimes feeling overlooked, excluded, and underestimated. My mantra has always been “I’m a person,” and that’s never been truer than right now. The world is changing, and society needs to change with it. Characters with disabilities need to be on the screen. They need to be visible, and they need to be seen and heard. The days of people with disabilities quietly living out their lives in seclusion, far away from society, are over. It’s 2017. We’re here. We’re visible. And we’re not going anywhere.