Disclaimer: Whilst I myself am not a wheelchair user, a close family member is. These are my thoughts on wheelchair-user representation based on the experiences of those I am closest to.
This post’s going to be a little different to my others. I don’t want to focus here on one show, film, or book, but to address a problem that appears rampant across all forms of media (whether that be those produced in ‘a different time,’ or more recently). It’s a problem that many people likely fail even to notice, and one that, until a few years ago, I failed to notice myself. But, for those with friends and loved ones using wheelchairs regularly, this problem suddenly becomes all-too noticeable. The problem I’m talking about is this: The ‘Curse’ of the Wheelchair.
I don’t know whether this term has made it to the TV Tropes website yet, but if not, then it should have. You all know the one: character gets in accident; character uses wheelchair; character complains about how much said wheelchair is ruining their life to the point where they might as well not be living at all; character miraculously recovers and lives happily ever after (or, if not happily ever after, without a wheelchair at least). Media I’ve praised for their representation in other posts do this just as much as shows known for their ‘backwards’ approach to inclusion. Downton Abbey, Emmerdale, Waterloo Road, All the Things We’ve Never Said, and the otherwise fantastic film Notting Hill, all feature characters using wheelchairs as the result of an accident and making it known that they have a much lower quality of life now to the life they led before. To make matters worse, in the case of shows such as Downton Abbey and Emmerdale, the arc inevitably (or will inevitably, in the case of an ongoing storyline), ends with the character regaining their ability to walk, and having all their life problems fixed in the process. As I’m sure you can probably tell by now, I do not consider this to be helpful — or even healthy — disability representation.
If these storylines were being done to highlight the need for greater disability provision and wheelchair access in everyday life, I might be inclined to view them differently. But this is not the case. All too often, the focus is on the restrictions of the person who wishes to perform everyday tasks, rather than the unsuitability of common tools and resources for use by those with physical disabilities or restrictions. All the Things We’ve Never Said, a book that I have formally praised for its representation of mental health conditions, features a wheelchair user who seemingly wants to commit suicide for no reason other than her disability. One of my favourite shows of all time, Waterloo Road, takes a similarly backwards approach when character Tariq is injured in a car crash at the end of season 7. Another much-loved show of mine, Downton Abbey (you should probably know, if I’m trashing something in a blog post or published paper, I probably love it regardless), uses a temporary disability to cause difficulties between Mary and Matthew when Matthew believes himself unable to have children and describes himself as a ‘cripple’ who doesn’t want to burden Mary. All of this is is, of course, miraculously fixed and serves to make their relationship stronger than ever when he makes a full recovery.
This narrative needs to change. We need more characters who are disabled as a result of pre-existing conditions; more characters who will not recover and manage to lead full and enjoyable lives regardless. Disabled people most often do not want to be pitied: they want only to be given a chance at a life they can enjoy and experience to the fullest. Most importantly of all, we need physically-disabled characters to be played by physically-disabled actors. These are their stories. People disabled for reasons other than accidents and injuries need to see themselves represented in the media as much as anybody else does. They need to see people like them living their lives. Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of of this (and to be fair, I’m sure there are other instances) is Coronation Street’s Izzy: a character who, like actress Cherylee Houston, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a physical disability which, amongst other things, impacts collagen production and the body’s connective tissue. Whilst the show does not shy away from mentioning the disability, and even featured a poignant storyline about the impact of the pain this condition causes several years ago, my favourite thing about this portrayal is that it doesn’t try to do something dramatic every time Izzy is on screen. Viewers see Izzy finding a way to have a child, leading her life, working, laughing with her friends. In short, Izzy is a person and not a plot device. And for some disabled people I know, this alone is enough.
So, in the unlikely event that any fiction authors or screenwriters/producers are reading this and have gotten this far without taking offence, let’s try to eliminate ‘curse of the wheelchair’ storylines. Or, at the very least, not make these the only uses of characters in wheelchairs. Talk to disabled people; hire disabled actors; listen to their stories. Let them tell their stories. Help them to see that they are not and should not be confined to a life indoors if that isn’t what they want (unless we’re all on a COVID lockdown of course, but that’s another story). Let’s make people understand that disability isn’t a topic to be shunned or tip-toed around, but that a genuine query about what a person needs can make it much easier for them to be included in their friends’ and families’ lives.
Oh, and if you feel like demonstrating how inconvenient it is when people park over where the kerb has been lowered for wheelchair users, that would be fine too.