The Conclusion of the Controversy

In Columns, Life With Laura by Laura Stinson

In continuing my previous column, I will wrap up the account of that fateful classroom discussion.

Once the labeling issue was laid to rest, I decided that perhaps I should just stay quiet. If only that was as easy for me to do as it is for me to say. The next topic from Mairs’ essay, “On Being a Cripple”, that my class discussed was the media’s portrayal of women — with and without disabilities — and beauty and if that was a fair depiction.

Let’s get a few generalizations out of the way. First, the media’s portrayal of what passes for a beautiful woman is ludicrous. Very few women can live up to this image and, if one does, it is usually because she has a personal trainer, chef, and stylist at her beck and call.

Secondly, a woman on television with a disability is a rarity. If she’s there, she’s generally not beautiful and if she’s beautiful it’s pretty much guaranteed there’s nothing “wrong” with her.

Finally, if the media, especially movies or television, do have a character with a disability, nine times out of ten that character will be male. Also nine times out of ten, the reason for the character’s disability will be a horrific accident that turned his life completely upside down.

I suppose it makes the character more noble in having overcome “tragic” circumstances to live a semblance of his previous life as opposed to having to make a life for himself in this cruel world while having a disability all along. At least, I would imagine that’s the way television producers look at it.

I challenge all of you to think of a television character or movie character that is a prominent figure in the story, is female, has a disability, and is portrayed in a fair way. Hard, isn’t it? I can only come up with one or two examples myself. After outlining the grievances above, I put the same challenge to my classmates. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at the ridiculous nature of what was said or to pity them for their ignorance.

One male student spoke up and said, “Look at Paul McCartney’s wife. She’s hot.” I hated to burst his bubble by pointing out that Heather Mills was a model before she was disabled and that her disability is one of the easiest to hide. She’s a below-the-knee amputee.

For the record, I am not trivializing this disability in any way. I’m sure losing her leg was tragic for Mills and I do not want to take away from the fact that she probably suffered greatly. However, her suffering is not cause to ignore the fact that if she did not make her disability public knowledge it would be extremely difficult to discern.

A below-the-knee amputation—particularly just one leg—is much easier to disguise as opposed to a hearing, visual, or severe mobility impairment.

Then Angela spoke once again. She mentioned the ER character, Dr. Kerry Weaver, played by Laura Innes. In the show, Dr. Weaver uses a crutch to aid her walking. While I agreed that, yes, Dr. Weaver is a female character who is disabled and is in a demanding profession, I also felt the need to point out that after several seasons, the show’s writers decided to make her character a lesbian. Call me crazy, but doesn’t that seem to send a bit of a mixed message? “Yes, Dr. Weaver is a strong character with a strong personality but, since she’s disabled, we can’t ever let her have another relationship with a man. It’s just unrealistic.” Pardon me while I scoff.

After pointing out the irony of Dr. Weaver’s sexual orientation, I was informed by Angela that I am “biased and bitter.” Ouch. I am the first one to admit that I am bitter about my situation. It’s unfair. All that happened to necessitate my being in a wheelchair was my birth. I don’t think it is completely wrong of me to be angry about my situation, at least sometimes. However, that has nothing to do with my opinion about the choice of Dr. Weaver’s sexuality on ER.

As my professor pointed out, how many stereotypes can be believably put upon this character’s shoulders?

What struck me the most is the fact that, if you haven’t noticed, the able-bodied are just as biased as I admittedly am. Not knowing much about the television profession, I can only assume that the people working behind the camera are not disabled and really have no idea what it means to have a disability in today’s world.

However, because the disabled are a minority—albeit the largest of all minorities—the able-bodied population doesn’t see a problem with the fact that there are not many disabled characters on TV. This population sees one disabled character on TV and thinks that’s enough. We know that it isn’t because it isn’t a fair representation of the world.

Ethnic minorities fought this same battle over the lack of non-white characters on television and in films. It is only in recent years that non-white minorities have become a staple in popular media and are not being portrayed in stereotypical ways. It will probably mean many more years of fighting for the disabled to achieve the same status.

The easiest way to do this is to change the opinion of people like my classmates by forcing them to see what they have long closed their eyes against. Once we do that, it is only a matter of time before the correct opinion spreads throughout the world.

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