This just in … all over this great country of ours, disability is becoming an ever-more-popular topic in mainstream media. The kinds of in-depth, penetrating stories you would normally find in disability studies journals or fine publications like this are popping up in the daily newspaper. This borders on exciting.
No longer are these pieces centered on kids with disabilities who do seemingly incredible things. “He can even speak Russian!” “Who ever heard of a miniature golf champion in a wheelchair?” You will now come across thoughtful, incisive writing on disability in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and even the haughty pages of The New Yorker. Some of the time, the subject matter can surprise you. The Post had a piece recently entitled “Digital Disabilities — Text Neck, Cellphone Elbow — are Painful and Growing.” I’m getting frozen shoulder syndrome just pounding this keyboard all day. It ain’t paralysis, but like the man said, it’s painful.
The NYT leads the current onslaught of litterature d’invalidité. Since August of last year, they have published a weekly essay on disabilities in the opinion section of the Sunday paper. The beauty is that they are all written by people who have disabilities. The Times is merely the vehicle.
Here are two completely different stories to illustrate my point. One showed up in the NYT a few weeks ago and is in the running for all-time favorite. It’s called “Stories About Disability Don’t Have to be Sad,” written by a precocious middle-schooler, Melissa Shang, who has a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease. Her point is simple: “My story is not a sad one.” She hates that young people, in particular, see disabled kids as “miserable people to be pitied.” She wrote a book about a disabled kid who loved her life. One professional reader rejected it by saying that the character didn’t suit such a lighthearted story. Where’s the hospital bed? The rejection, the loneliness, the “I’ll show them” winning the 100-yard dash?
Shang hates all that. She wants scenes in the school cafeteria with her buds, not hospitals. She wants everyone in earshot to “see disabled kids as friends, people to gossip with, to take selfies with, and go see movies with. …” She wants kids to play with a disabled classmate and say: “She’s just like me! And she’s happy, too!” From the mouths of children. …
A good distance from Shang’s POV is a recent New Yorker piece called — get ready — “Are Disability Rights And Animal Rights Connected?” The subject of the piece, Sunaura Taylor, who has arthrogryposis, which causes joint contractures, sees the treatment of the disabled much like the treatment of animals. Both are viewed as “lower on the chain of being,” dependent, helpless and, in a pinch, expendable. As a kid, she was taunted that “she walked like a monkey and ate like a dog.” As an adult, she decided to embrace her animal nature. “I feel animal in my embodiment,” she says, “and this feeling is one of connection, not shame.”
I love animals, too, but don’t identify with them with the same ideological fervor that Taylor does. At the end of the piece, she mentions that she and her dog with back problems, Bailey, share an abiding affection. Now this I get.
In an article I wrote about disability and advertising for NM last year, my very favorite ad was from Kleenex, told in the first person, about a guy in Florida who’s paralyzed and a dog he and his wife found discarded like trash on the side of the road. The dog, “Chance,” is paralyzed, too, and for the rest of the ad, he dons his harness and red wagon for back legs and just tackles every moment with insane energy and enthusiasm. His love of life is an instant antidote for self-pity.
All this new mainstream media interest in disability is a heartening sign that we are becoming more visible. I recommend you keep your eyes open for other well-told, genuinely insightful stories of the same ilk. If the one you come across has a high-octane dog dragging a red wagon, please send me the link.