excuse me as i'm serious for a moment
But there was one bit of fail that slipped through largely unnoted this week, which I'd like to highlight now and wish I’d been able to highlight earlier. comment_fic had "disability" as a prompt on Wednesday, which as lilpocketninja noted is just excruciatingly tasteless and yet more proof that fandom, like society as a whole, remains exceedingly ablist and, even more troubling, doesn't even seem to notice when it's being ablist.
I get that it's hard to poke your head out of the cloud of your own privilege sometimes because when you've lived with it long enough, it becomes hard to see that there is a cloud around you, that the way you perceive things isn't the way things actually are. There are some issues (race, class) on which I have difficulty myself as much as I try to overcome and keep myself aware of my own privilege at all times. I understand, but I'm obviously not very sympathetic because letting yourself stay in that comfortable cloud is in itself an exercise of privilege and an exacerbation of disadvantage of the unprivileged.
Overall, I suppose I've been spoiled by fandom which I realize is filled with individuals with varying levels of racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. but is also a community in which people are far more willing to confront their own privileges than society on a whole is. So maybe that's why the almost unbroken silence that greets disability issues always disappoints me so much and why thinking about all of this actually kept me up last night. I had to confront this disappointment a lot this season, reading episode reactions to Glee and hearing smart, sensitive people – people who I know have and will speak out on issues of racism and sexism and so on – describe things like the Safety Dance sequence or most of Artie's plotline in general as well-done or touching when it is in fact a giant, stereotypical mess of a story, a story that (like so many fictional narratives about people with disabilities) is really an abled person’s perspective on what they think it must be like living with a disability.
I don't want to go on forever about this, though I know I could as disability rights has become sort of my specialization over the years. I also don't hold out my own views and my own perception of ablism as the only ones. The disability rights community has diverse opinions on many issues, and anything I say reflects my own personal experience and academic/advocacy study only. That being said, here are some brief, non-exhaustive, things that I think fandom generally tends to be unaware of when discussing narratives about persons with disabilities:
1) Disability is societally-created. If you are going to learn one thing, try to learn this because many of the other problems that arise spring from here. The issues people with disabilities encounter do not arise from their particular restrictions/impairments/conditions but from the fact that society has been created around an able-bodied and able-minded standard which does not take into account other experiences. Being in a wheelchair, to use the example that is usually the easiest for people to understand, doesn't become a "problem" until society starts building corridors that are too narrow and stairs and curbs without thinking about the impact this has on people other than those who aren't in wheelchairs. And being placed in a position where you have to ask others to modify the world for you, because they didn't take into account your needs to begin with, is an inherently disempowering, marginalizing and demeaning situation. When Bobby in Supernatural encounters an elevator that's out and a set of stairs that he, now paralyzed from the waist down, can’t climb, this is played as a joke. But it's not funny because it's life for a lot of people.
(EDIT 21/06 12:47PM: An important point was raised in the comments that not all of disability is encompassed in the social model of disability. The physical and mental impairment/restrictions exist regardless of the reaction of society. I stress the social aspect for a variety of reasons. I approach these question from a legal perspective first often. I prefer to err on the side of the social model to avoid medical model discourse. I am often uncomfortable labelling my own medical condition a disability but have no problem stating that society frequently treats me and relates to me as a person with a disability. However, that does not change the fact that disabilities are real things with real impacts on the lives of individuals, regardless of societal constructions. I apologize for masking that originally.)
2) Persons with disabilities are not less because they have disabilities. How I wish I didn’t even need to spell that out but since the writers on Glee actually stuck the words "You need someone who isn't half a partner" into Artie's mouth this season, apparently I do. Repeat after me: Different is not less. Different is not less. Individuals with disabilities may have impairments or restrictions but that does not take away from their full personhood.
3) Persons with disabilities are not tragic, heroic martyrs. They’re people. Unfortunately, in fiction, that's rarely what they're portrayed as. Disability is often used as a narrative tool that's one step away from fridging, meant to convey a lesson, a warning, or a source of inspiration, and it's made worse because usually the message is directed at the able characters in the narrative. House’s leg injury, for example, is frequently used as shorthand for "Beware, able characters! Don’t become like me!" In one episode of Glee, there's an entire sequence where Finn takes Rachel to see his paraplegic friend to teach her that having laryngitis isn't so bad. A person's life is not a teaching moment for someone else, and pity and charity are the wrong response because, once again, different is not less.
4) The life of a person with disabilities is not tragically unfulfilled because they have a disability. This is a more contentious issue within the disability rights community, which I won't get into unless prompted because it's sort of tangential. But suffice to say that many, many, many people with disabilities do not spend their time dreaming about how grand life would be if they were just "fixed." And yet isn't that the story of just about every single character with a disability on TV at the moment? Isn't that what Glee's Safety Dance sequence was all about? Different is not less. Disability is not a problem until society makes it one. Learn these lessons, fandom and TV and society. The story of a character with a disability is not how much it sucks to have a disability and how great life is for able people. That's only what able people think it is.
5) For the love of god, just stop removing the agency of people with disabilities, okay? It's not cute or dramatic or touching when the choices of people with disabilities are removed, especially when they are removed by able people who are acting in "their best interest." To draw on a Glee example again (and I should point out that the only reason Glee examples are so prevalent is because Glee, unlike many shows, actually has characters with disabilities even if it then proceeds to execute their plotlines terribly), Mr. Schuester dictating to Ms. Pillsbury exactly what she's going to do to overcome her OCD and then booking her a counselling appointment without consulting her is not romantic. It's belittling and dehumanizing and implies that Ms. Pillsbury, a grown woman, should not be allowed to make choices having to do with her own mental health.
6) And with all that said, disabilities are also not things to be picked up and then put down again when it stops being narratively convenient. I am looking at you, CSI, Supernatural, House and basically every other narrative that has a character with a disability and has gone on long enough.
Having finished that list now, I can't help but look back over each one and nod my head and think "Well, yes, obviously." So much of it seems self-evident to me, but I think the fact that I can point to multiple examples for each point in current television, that I see these issues pop up in fanfiction constantly, and that the comment_fic prompt led to a catalogue of exactly this kind of essentializing and stereotyping means that it is probably worth saying all of that again, even if I'm certainly not the first or best person to say it.
So. Now I feel a bit better. On the off chance that this attracts comments, please be polite and courteous, etc. Just writing this has somewhat exhausted my goodwill regarding teaching people about able privilege, so I may or may not want to engage in serious discussion in the comments, which is my prerogative and doesn't mean that the above didn't need to be said by someone.