Insomnia gives me many chances to catch up on shows that I have recorded on my DVR. Last night I was watching one of those when I spotted a commercial that stopped me in my fast-forwarding tracks. It was a a Target commercial that includes a child in a wheelchair as part of the cast. The child is portrayed as “normal” he’s playing and pushing the chair and just being a kid. He is not a victim. He is not “disabled”. He just is. And it is wonderful.
The thing that concerns me most about this ad, however, isn’t the fact that this child is in it. It’s the fact that it surprised me at all. This is 2015. We have sent people into space. We created cell phones that basically do everything except cook you dinner (which they would do if only they had thumbs). We have created vaccines that have virtually eradicated certain diseases. We are an advanced society and yet, in today’s day and age, it is still a surprise to see a disabled person portrayed by the media.
Per the 2010 US Census, nearly 1 in 5 Americans have some sort of disability. That works out to a whopping 56.7 MILLION people who consider themselves at least somewhat disabled, and more than half – so approximately 28.36 MILLION people – reported to the Census that their disability was severe. This is a lot of people. And yet, this population is virtually invisible in media. And sure, there are movies that show the “plucky girl in a wheelchair who overcomes adversity to graduate from Harvard” but those movies aren’t who we are as a population. So many of these types of movies portray us as victims or as saints. I am not a victim. I am certainly not a saint. I am, however, a best friend, a snarky coworker, a romantic lead, a hero, and an enemy. I am a patron at the table next to you at a local restaurant. I am a student in school. I am the lady in front of you at the grocery store. I am all around you, and yet, I am invisible.
Maybe I am overly sensitive to this because it hasn’t been all that long ago when school districts could simply say “nope, not interested” when confronted with a disabled student enrolling in their school. Yes. This happened. Yes. In public schools. I know. It happened to me. I was lucky – a neighboring school district agreed to take me as a student and though it was difficult to make friends when you don’t live in the area where everyone else lives, I was able to go to the schools in that district all the way from Kindergarten until graduation. My mother wasn’t so lucky. She had the same bone disease I have and was turned down by all schools in her area. She was home schooled by my grandmother (long before home schooling was trendy) until eighth grade when a nearby Catholic school agreed to take her (we weren’t Catholic).
I remember studying about the Eugenics movement and how in 1927 the Supreme Court sided with Virginia regarding their forced sterilization of the disabled. In school, when we studied World War II and the Holocaust, only passing mention was given to the fact that more than 200,000 mentally and physically disabled people were killed during Hitler’s Euthanasia program, and prior to that over 300,000 disabled were sterilized under Hitler’s regime.
We have come so far as a society. Today, I do not fear being sterilized or euthanized against my wishes. It is no longer legal to disciminate against me for a job, or keep me locked in an attic so I don’t harm the public’s sensitivities with my unsightly wheelchair (you laugh, but there were laws on the books to that effect up through the 1950’s… perhaps even longer). I am free to marry and to drive a car. Children no longer need to fear being turned away from public schools. But it’s time that the media gets on board with 2015. The disabled population is not shrinking. Instead, it is growing as our population ages and injured veterans return from overseas. We deserve to be portrayed as who we are – a large diverse population who wants the same things from life as anyone else – to be accepted, loved and respected.