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Why Wesley on 'Queer Eye' Is the Kind of Disability Representation We Need

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Over the weekend, I sat down with the necessary box of Kleenex to watch the new season of “Queer Eye” on Netflix. In case you’ve never seen it, “Queer Eye” is a reality show where five gay men, each with a different area of expertise, help the “hero” of the week revitalize their style, home and life. What began as a makeover show grew into a program that helps people who are beloved by their families and communities but need a little extra help to grow into their best selves. The show regularly tackles issues such as race, immigration, religion and LGBTQ acceptance with sensitivity and grace. This season, the Fab Five helped their first hero who uses a wheelchair, breaking new ground for disability representation on TV.

The episode, “Disabled, but Not Really,” follows the Fab Five as they make over Wesley, a Black man from Kansas City who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot six years ago. A self-described “bad boy,” Wesley was involved in drugs and gangs, but since his injury, he found a new perspective on life. He started a nonprofit, Disabled but Not Really, promoting physical fitness and mental health for people with disabilities. Over the course of the episode, design consultant Bobby Berk remodels his home to be wheelchair accessible, fashion consultant Tan France helps him adapt clothing for his needs, food consultant Antoni Porowski teaches him how to cook a new dish, grooming consultant Jonathan Van Ness helps him find a new style instead of the long hair that reminds him of being shot, and culture/personal growth coach Karamo Brown helps him face his past and move forward.

Wesley’s “Queer Eye” episode highlights many of the challenges people with disabilities face on a daily basis. Almost every aspect of his makeover required taking his disability into consideration. When Wesley met with fashion expert Tan France, Wesley explained how certain articles of clothing, especially jackets, don’t fit him properly and tend to get caught in his wheels. Tan showed Wesley how his clothes could be altered to fit better on his frame and stay clear of his wheels and provided him with a variety of new outfits. While I wish the episode had discussed the growing number of companies that make clothing for the disability community, it demonstrated that people with disabilities want to be fashionable and can look great in clothes that fit our bodies properly.

Like many wheelchair users, Wesley lived in a house that was not fully accessible, and he couldn’t afford to have it remodeled. His wooden ramp was falling apart, his bedroom was cramped, and he struggled to reach items in his closet. His kitchen was nearly impossible to use, which limited his ability to cook. Just imagine how it feels to not be able to reach your own stove or use the toilet and bathe without a struggle. With Bobby Berk’s “Queer Eye” home remodel, all things will keep getting better for Wesley. After the renovation, when Wesley went into the bathroom and saw his accessible sink and mirror, he broke down in tears of joy. I know that feeling, and so does every other disabled person who struggled without accessibility in their home and then finally got it.

The episode also demonstrates how important accessibility is for family members of a person with a disability. Wesley is a single father who is clearly deeply devoted to his daughter. He wanted his house to be more accessible not just so he could be more independent, but so he could care for his daughter like other dads. People with disabilities are often viewed as needing help and care, but we want to and can care for others too.

Wesley’s mother is a shining example of the amazing parents some of us have been fortunate to have, parents who will do whatever it takes to help their disabled child. Parents of disabled people, like any parent, want their child to be as independent as possible. However, Wesley continued to need help from his mom because his home wasn’t accessible for him to do certain tasks himself, and there was no one else to assist him.

When Wesley thanked his mother during a fundraising dinner shown on the episode for all she had done for him, I cried because he said all the things I wish I could’ve said to my mother before she passed away. She raised me to be the strong person I am today — but like Wesley’s mom and so many others who see their sacrifices as just part of their job as a parent, I’m sure if she were here she would say, “No thanks needed.”

“Queer Eye” isn’t afraid to take on complex and difficult issues, and this episode was no exception. When Karamo Brown asked for Wesley’s blessing for something, I knew at that moment what he was going to do, and I got a lump in my throat. Wesley had agreed to meet with the man who shot and paralyzed him after an argument, Maurice. Maurice served time in prison, but was released and is trying to move forward with his life.

In one of the most powerful exchanges I’ve seen on TV, Wesley and Maurice met at a coffee shop to have a difficult but ultimately healing conversation. I was struck by Wesley’s courage and willingness to have a dialogue with someone who had altered his life in a way many people would see as negative. But that’s not how Wesley sees it.

Throughout the episode, Wesley repeatedly said his life is better since he became paralyzed, and he considers it the best thing that ever happened to him. That might be a surprising thing for able-bodied people to hear, and I think it’s important for them to hear it. People assume disability is something bad without recognizing it can be life-changing in positive ways. As someone who has been disabled since birth, I can’t know for sure who I would’ve become if I didn’t grow up with a disability. But I believe I am a more compassionate, open-minded person because of my disability. I know many other people with disabilities who feel the same way.

Although I admire Wesley’s decision to meet with the man who shot him, it’s important to point out that not everyone who has been through trauma would benefit from such an exchange. If you are considering facilitating a similar conversation, you must follow Brown’s lead and get consent from the survivor first. Do not be disappointed or pressure the survivor if their answer is no. Many survivors are re-traumatized by any interactions with an abuser, and unfortunately, many abusers are not willing to acknowledge their past behavior and commit to genuine change. Out of the four people who hurt me in life-altering ways, there’s only one I’d be willing to sit down with. We all have different experiences with trauma and our own paths to healing. Please know you are not less of a person if you can’t forgive someone who caused you severe physical or psychological harm.

Some people in the disability community have been critical of the name of Wesley’s organization — Disabled, but Not Really. I can understand that opinion and share it up to a point. Saying you’re “disabled, but not really” suggests disability is a bad thing, and that’s a stereotype disability advocates are trying to change. However, if you look at the mission of his organization and what Wesley actually says about his life, he isn’t saying disability is bad. He’s trying to change how society views life with a disability and show the “bad” things able-bodied people might think when they hear the word “disability” aren’t accurate.

When a person becomes disabled as an adult, they go through a grieving process. Along with mourning their loss of physical abilities, they often experience an identity crisis. Suddenly they have a new label, “disabled,” and it carries a tremendous amount of baggage. The newly disabled person spent years absorbing society’s negative perceptions of disability, but upon becoming disabled themselves, they often quickly realize those stereotypes don’t apply to them. Their first instinct may be to say, “Well I’m disabled, but not like those other people,” rather than recognizing that most of “those other people” don’t fit the stereotypes either. As newly disabled people get to know others who have been in the community for longer, they usually come to understand this, and I think Wesley has too.

It’s critical for the disability community to listen to Wesley’s perspective as a Black man with a disability. The disability advocacy movement is dominated by white people, and those in power consistently fail to address issues that predominantly affect people of color and others from marginalized communities. The disability community needs to be talking about how systemic racism and poverty affect disabled people of color, how gun violence leads to disabilities and the needs of gun violence survivors with disabilities. As a white woman from a middle-class family, I have no experience with these issues and am not remotely qualified to address them. But what I can do is recognize the importance of people like Wesley as leaders in the struggle for disability rights. Being a good advocate means listening to everyone in the community, including and especially those whose voices often aren’t heard.

As a disability community, I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice if we attach the label “inspiration porn” to people like Wesley. Our community needs diverse representation in the media, and “Queer Eye” told Wesley’s story in a responsible way. He was not treated as an object of pity, had plenty of opportunities to speak for himself and his story educated viewers about the everyday challenges wheelchair users face. There is nothing wrong with considering a person inspirational for overcoming difficult circumstances and becoming a force for good in their community. That’s what “Queer Eye” is all about, whether the hero of the episode is disabled or not.

“Queer Eye” often chooses “everyday heroes” to help — people who have given back to their communities, often at the expense of their own needs. Wesley fits this description perfectly. He has taken the many difficult hands he was dealt and turned them into something positive. He started a nonprofit to help others even though he couldn’t afford to make his own home accessible. He is a dedicated, loving single father and devoted son. He is a great role model for everyone and living proof people can change and deserve a second chance.

Thank you, Fab Five and “Queer Eye,” for serving us Disability Realness, helping Wesley and giving him a platform to share his story. I wish there were more people like you out there lifting up folks who are trying to make a difference in this world — disabled and non-disabled. Keep up the good work.

Photo via Netflix.

Originally published: July 23, 2019
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