Why I Refuse to Be a 'Good Disabled' Person
In a recent story I wrote for The Mighty, I made light of some of the situations my chronic illness has landed me in. Afterwards, I received many comments complimenting me on my ability to make the best out of my illness. I’m not sure that was my intent when writing. Sometimes you have to laugh at the ridiculous situations your illness places you in (strolling naked along a hospital corridor after being showered by nurses? Anyone?) — and I have grown as a person since becoming sick. However, this doesn’t mean I have to be grateful for my illness, or enjoy it.
I’m wary of perpetuating the stereotype of the “Good Disabled” person. That is, someone who is thankful for their condition, who has learned from it and become a Better Person. Someone who tries their darnedest to get better, who visits doctors regularly and smiles and nods when they are told they must be faking it, or should try X therapy again. Someone who isn’t visibly disabled, and doesn’t make able-bodied people feel uncomfortable by being so. In other words, someone who hides their disability.
Woefully inaccurate media depictions of disability reflect society’s tendency to shun the lived experiences of disabled people. In “The Fault in Our Stars,” attractive teenagers fall in love, with cancer acting as only another obstacle to their melodramatically fated relationship. It rears its ugly head only when convenient to the plot: lung collapse and violent coughing take a back seat when a character needs to climb a steep staircase, then later make love to her teenage boyfriend. Quirky characters exist with a wink and nod towards Asperger’s – tidy, pedantic and unchanging. The cutesy treatment obviates the real challenges that come with being on the spectrum, such as sensory processing disorder, social anxiety, and feeling adrift in a world of social conventions that are impossible to understand.
Mental illness serves as a neon warning sign to viewers: THIS CHARACTER IS DANGEROUS. Despite the mentally ill being more at risk of being victims of violence rather than perpetrators, all it takes is a diagnosis to turn a TV character into a mass murderer. I nearly cried when my beloved “Midsomer Murders” (I know, I know) concluded a recent mystery by unveiling the murderer as a traumatized woman who had struggled to overcome a host of anxiety disorders, including OCD and agoraphobia, after her daughter’s death many years ago. The fact that she had been abused and manipulated for years by her supposed best friend and counselor, who had killed her daughter, was of no consequence.
The “Evil Cripple” is a trope that helps audiences recognize who they should fear in a story. We know villains by their wheelchairs, canes, ugly scars and, in the case of “Casino Royale’s” Le Chiffre, an ever-present asthma pump. The implication is clear: the disabled are “other” and therefore sinister.
Even in the rare case that a character’s disability is portrayed accurately, you can be almost guaranteed that they will not be played by a disabled actor. The film industry has no qualms about churning out tropes of disability, no matter how inaccurate or offensive, but apparently draws the line at presenting actual disability on screen. The only acceptable disability, it would seem, is a fake one.
But as we people with disabilities do not live in the movie world, we are forced to find other ways to appease our real-life audience. Instead, we become the “Good Disabled.” The “Good Disabled” only exist relative to the able-bodied people around them. They are denied personality, dreams, hopes and vision. They are the essence of inspiration porn; based on athlete Scott Hamilton’s now-famous quip, “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” (He offered no such sage advice for those who were not privileged enough to be able to rely on their body for their career.) Pictures of men, women and children with visible disabilities are plastered all over Facebook, often without their consent, to act as a reminder to able-bodied people that “at least they don’t have it that bad.” No one asks the subject of the image what they think.
In a society where disability erasure is like second nature, being disabled — not “Good Disabled” — is a bold statement. Acknowledging that having a disability or chronic illness can be really, really s***, is shocking. And refusing to thank God, the universe and everything for a disability can seem like ungratefulness (why can’t you just be happy you’re ill?) Perhaps this is because when the disabled start to express these kinds of opinions, they force others to look at them as people, rather than inspiration or stereotypes.
We spoonies have it within our power to reject society’s ableist narratives and build our own. Movements such as cripple punk celebrate the “Bad Disabled” – people who smoke, drink, and eat junk food. Who don’t try shoving kale up their asses because someone on the Internet said so. People who rely on walking aids, who decorate their canes, and who refuse to be silenced.
Urban Dictionary sums it up:
“A movement that is exclusively by the physically disabled for the physically disabled. It’s about rejecting pity, inspiration porn, & all other forms of ableism. It ejects the “good cripple” mythos. Cripple Punk is here for the bitter cripple, the uninspirational cripple, the smoking cripple, the drinking cripple, the addict cripple, the cripple who hasn’t “tried everything.” Cripple Punk fights internalized ableism & fully supports those struggling with it. It respects intersections of race, culture, gender, sexual/romantic orientation, size, intersex status, mental illness/neuroatypical status, survivor status, etc. Cripple Punk does not pander to the able bodied.”
Cripple punk promotes what is truly a radical idea – that disabled people can own their body as is. There is no need to to strive to conform or be thankful for our fate. Enforced positivity is rejected. Cripple punk infuses disabled bodies with agency, an element which is denied by so much conventional treatment of disability. Our disabled bodies can exist in a public space, without apology or a requisite companion/carer to diffuse our “difference.” We can dance, unashamed, as Stella Young did (before being patronized by those surprised by the presence of a disabled body on the dance floor). In cpunk, disabled people are autonomous. We choose how we feel about our bodies, freed from the constraints of the judgment of others.
We disabled folk are not here for inspiration. We refuse to gratify an ableist belief that if we just try to be happier, our physical disabilities can be “overcome.” Yes, I can laugh at my illness, and yes, I am truly thankful for the lessons I have learned along the way. I can celebrate the bright side of my illness, while acknowledging the devastating impact it has had on my life. Because I am not your “Good Disabled,” and nor should I be. I am unapologetically disabled.
This post originally appeared on Chronically Siobhan.