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Dreams. Well, funnily enough as a wheelchair user, one of them is that every set of stairs I rock up to would magically turn into a ramp. But as comedian Stella Young once illuminated in a TED talk, no amount of radiating a can-do attitude is ever gonna do that for me. My dream is not, as mainstream media and classic literature would have you believe, to wake up and magically be a ‘real-girl’ who can walk, thanks to any range of things including, but not limited to, a fairy godmother, Jesus, exorcism, fresh mountain air, a blue Avatar body, medical advances, sunlight, friendship, and self belief. People have equally attempted to haul some of these things out of fiction and apply them to my actual life and body. No, thank you. But these people’s perceptions of disability are understandable considering the limited types of stories we choose to tell about disability in society and art.
Recently I’ve seen some shining examples in film and television where disability is not treated as something a person must transcend to enjoy the good life, rather just a fact of it. Both Deadwood and Breaking Bad do this successfully, with The Sessions walking a fine line between both.
However, as I grew up (and even now) I found there is very little media that expresses the complexity of having a disability. One way the experience of disability is undermined (which particularly annoys me) is the use of the dream sequence in film. Plots where a disabled person’s character arch is centered around their experience of disability frequently feature a moment of hope or melancholy where the disabled person imagines themselves out of their body. Examples include: The Theory of Everything, Archie’s dream sequence from Glee.
Bodily transcendence like this may be used to represent some contradictory aspect of the human condition—our inability to be happy with what we have perhaps? But given a dearth of diverse disability stories, it reads as the disabled body being undesirable and able-bodiedness being aspirational. It also cuts disabled actors out of opportunities to tell their own stories. As comedian Maysoon Zayid put it, “if I can’t do the stunts then a character with my disability can’t do the stunts.” For some of us a stunt is walking in a straight line.