Ain’t it Awful?: What Does the “Face” of Disability Currently Tell the World?

Happy February, readers!

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this month’s posts to issues of love within the community of persons with disabilities. Of course, we have covered some significant topics in this vein in the past two or so years, such as the facts that:

  • PWDs want, and deserve, romantic relationships
  • PWDs can understand the needs and wants of a partner, despite sentiment to the contrary that they are “perpetually needy,” so to speak
  • PWDs are in fact sexual beings and can enjoy sexual activity
  • PWDs can be parents, and have the right to do so, without interference from the state or local government except in cases of intentional neglect or abuse, just like everyone else (who would only be reported in cases of intentional neglect or abuse–we hope)

But there is more to love than the romantic gestures, the wedding ceremonies, and the activities between the sheets. This is because “love” is only four letters long, but is a big word, in that it encompasses a lot of connotations and emotions. So for today, let’s start with one little piece of that. Let’s examine the question: how is society doing when it comes to making persons with disabilities look lovable?

By “lovable,” I don’t mean heartstring-tugging, warm-and-fuzzy, “Aw look, the boy in the wheelchair and his dog love each other.” No–too often, that turns into inspiration discrimination because “everybody loves a ‘brave cripple.'” I’m talking here about love in the physical, romantic sense. That is, does the media, and does real life, portray disability in a way that says, “This person can be loved and love you back?”

The answer to this question is tricky, because we have come a long way in this and so many other areas involving PWDs and their civil rights. For example, in the 1950s and earlier, I’m guessing (because I wasn’t born then) that people usually believed, disability = always single, often because “disability” also equaled institutionalization. Now, we have proof that this is not true. People with disabilities marry, even if their disabilities are severe. Christian speaker and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada is married, and she has quadriplegia. An HBO documentary, Monica and David, features the courtship and marriage of two individuals with Down Syndrome. We even have online dating services specifically for the community of persons with disabilities, such as dating4disabled.com. But as with most civil rights movements, change takes time, and sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back proposition. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer–simply to present both sides of the issue.

So on the positive side, we have real people with disabilities who have achieved romantic success, in their own ways. That’s great. And it’s also great if you happen to be a PWD and prefer to stay single. Believe me, I get that. I want to be married, but I also understand the advantages of single-dom, not the least of which: I control the remote, pick the ice cream, and don’t have to worry that my honey might be allergic to my cat. (Yes, I finally adopted one–or, er, she adopted me). 🙂

Yet, on the negative side, we have too many people who still doubt that relationships could be feasible for PWDs. Some of these are our old friends “the experts”–doctors, therapists, you name it–who are trained to spew gloom and doom prophecies to the families of every baby born with a disability, more’s the pity for them. Some are the ignorant, mean-spirited clods who look at PWDs and see non-people. And some are in the media, presenting a “face” of disability that does not immediately bring the word “lovable” to mind.

Let’s keep one thing straight: I am not saying that any person with a disability, or any type of disability, is ugly or unlovable. It’s not–they’re not. What I am saying is that the media tends to root out the most severe examples of disabilities, and that’s what they show on TV or in the movies or in magazines, because then, the disability is “in your face.” You can’t ignore it.

The media also does this, I believe, to perpetuate what Kathie Snow has referred to as an “ain’t it awful” attitude. You know the one: the one that focuses on what a PWD can’t do, can’t say, won’t ever do or say. The one that makes these folks look like charity cases, to be pitied and clucked over like we’re all hens hyped up on Coca-Cola. It’s what you often see when you tune in to a telethon whose purpose is to “help the handicapped.” It’s what you see with the charity Jerry Lewis began–even though the PWDs who have utilized this charity may be adults, every person who has utilized it is referred to as part of Jerry’s Kids. As in, you could be 45, but according to these people, you’re still a kid. And I’m 100% sure Jerry’s Kids isn’t the only offender. It’s what you see when you turn on your television or pop in the latest inspirational, feel-good flick featuring a person with a disability, and see temporarily able-bodied people crying, lamenting, or asking for money. “Ain’t it awful?”

And yes, it is awful. As I have said on this blog, it breaks my heart that grown people with disabilities can’t walk, can’t talk, might need colostomy bags, end up in group homes because their elderly family members really can’t care for them, and so forth. It angers me. It shakes my faith if I let it–and I’ve let it. Guilty. But when you parade people with disabilities in front of the world with this attitude, that’s what’s truly awful.

Think about it. Generally, when you see people with disabilities in the media, what do you see? Severe intellectual disabilities, especially those with “classical features,” such as Down’s Syndrome. For example, a meme recently circulated on Facebook showing a Marine escorting a beautiful young lady with Down Syndrome to the annual Cinderella Ball for people with disabilities, cancer, and other illnesses or conditions and their families. That’s wonderful, and that Marine’s got class. But the camera showed the young lady with her eyes down, frowning, no makeup, and her hair looking–kind of lackluster. Now, that could’ve been a fluke. Maybe she was looking away. Maybe she didn’t want to wear makeup or an elaborate hairstyle. What I’m saying is, Down Syndrome was the first thing you noticed, and I don’t think it should’ve been.

You may also see things like: people in wheelchairs, unable to hold their heads up, or holding their heads to the side. Gaping mouths are common in the media too, as are jerking limbs, for whatever reason (palsy, epilepsy, whatever). And too often, the PWDs we see in the media–less so in movies and TV, but certainly in documentaries or “based on true story” productions–aren’t dressed with care or given makeup or made to feel beautiful. For example, in Riding the Bus with My Sister, Beth, the character who has an intellectual disability, is seen without makeup at all times, usually in shorts and T-shirts that feature characters like Winnie-the-Pooh. Now of course, maybe she preferred that–her characterization doesn’t tell us. But in that portrayal, I see a message that says, “Beth is a perpetual child. She doesn’t need to be beautiful because she cannot be an object of love outside her own family.”

The argument here is that people need to look beyond the “package,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, society so far is doing a horrible job of truly taking temporarily able-bodied people beyond the package. PWDs even have a hard time getting beyond it. Sometimes, I find myself looking in the mirror and saying, “Pretty and deserving of romance? Me?” Is that all the media’s fault? No. But I wish they’d change the face of disability so it looks like it truly is. Some of those faces are black, or white, or Asian. Some have visible features of disability–and some don’t. Some have acne or wrinkles, some are fat and some are thin. Some have big noses or hazel eyes, or curly hair, or gaps in the teeth from where their older brother accidentally clocked them with a football. But all those faces are real, and deserve to be loved–in every way, including romantically.

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2 thoughts on “Ain’t it Awful?: What Does the “Face” of Disability Currently Tell the World?

  1. Just wanted to say a few words about Beth in particular:

    For most of the narrative of RIDING THE BUS she is in a committed and passionate relationship with Jesse.

    At the end of the book she has her eyebrows shaped and her eyelashes taken out/operated on.

    And her family did not consider her an object … much less a SUBJECT or AGENT of love until quite late on … until she was in her mid-20s.

  2. Dear Adelaide,

    Good point. The fact that Beth’s family did not consider her lovable is even more disturbing, as you can see in today’s post. I’m also aware that when it comes to making persons with disabilities feel beautiful, we walk a fine line: do they feel beautiful, or are we sending the message that they need makeovers, need to look more “like us”? (If they choose to have a makeover, like Beth, that’s different). There are a lot of fine lines when it comes to disability, and this is just one. I smell a new post.

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