We’re Not There Yet

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 15, 2022 # Lifestyle

When CODA walked away with three Academy Awards earlier this year, probably a lot of people, disabled and non-disabled, thought that, finally, the 61 million disabled Americans were being seen and heard. After all, over 16 million people tuned in, and even if they hadn’t seen the film, they were at least hip to the fact that there are disabled people out who have the same, complicated, messed-up lives that they have. The whole purpose of disabled stories and characters on TV and in films, a movement in Hollywood making some marginal gains, is to “normalize” the disabled, see them as regular people, not freaks or outliers or God forbid, saints.

Well, it’s not working. It may be working among Hollywood and Broadway tastemakers and readers of the New York Times or Forbes, but a huge swath of the everyday populace is still nervous or afraid or toxically positive around the disabled. When I was first paralyzed in 1996, I would continuously spin jokes about people yelling in my ear, “How’s the weather down there?” or saying things like “Whoa, you’re breaking the speed limit!” or jerking their kids away when seeing me roll by at the mall or lecturing me in the elevator about how “God has a reason” for my affliction. Some would put their hand on my shoulder and say a silent prayer.

After a number of years, I stopped making those jokes because I thought they were passe. Blindered by those I was around in Los Angeles, including many youngsters, I didn’t see a lot of low-consciousness behavior toward me. People were still constantly coming up to my car window as I loaded groceries to ask if they could help, but I got tired of explaining the situation, usually in a Larry David voice – “Does it look like I need help?” – and just said, “No, thanks.”

Only recently, I’ve come to realize that disabled people, through comments online and elsewhere, are still experiencing the same ‘aren’t-you-special’ kind of public behavior. A single-amputee stand-up comedian, writer, and athlete, Josh Sundquist, whose early experiences form the basis of the brand-new Apple TV+ series, Best Foot Forward, does an act replete with the rude and stupid public reactions he gets. He calls it “bullied by offensive levels of kindness.” Like the airline clerk who said, “Because you only have one leg, I’m upgrading you to a seat with extra leg room!” Josh’s response: “I already have extra leg room. That’s literally the problem!”

Josh reports that when he’s out jogging (in workout clothes) with his crutches, a driver will inevitably pull up shouting, “Need a ride to the hospital? Late for a doctor’s appointment?” or an Uber driver will stop to say, “Hey, I’ll give you a free ride to anywhere you want to go! You don’t have to run anymore!”

A recent and very moving Facebook post by the actress-writer-wheelchair user, Teal Sherer, made the point even more emphatically. She’s rolling down the street, and a man comes up, gives her an aggressive thumb’s up, and says, “Keep up the good work!” Into the camera, Teal says: “This guy doesn’t even know me. For all he knows, I could be a serial killer…I’d make a good serial killer, don’t you think?...during the day, it’s all ‘you’re so inspiring, hope you get better, I’ll pray for you!’ and at night, I’m Dextering it up!”

I need to work on my killer Dexter face.

One reason for this continued marginalizing of the disabled by thinking we are special or fragile or needy is because CODA and other shining examples aside, you don’t see people like us portrayed to any great extent in mainstream media. Our statistical presence is pathetic. Every show with a disabled character is a special feature story in the newspaper in the same way that every show with a Black lead used to be.

Is there progress? In many pockets of the culture, absolutely. But fresh encounters with bullying-by-kindness are a good reality check. The micro-insults may never go away. On the other hand, worrying about these slights and faux pas except in passing is a waste of time. Just laugh it off or snap at the offender and move on. Seeing you function and pursue life on your own independent terms will have a much greater impact on others than the hoary stereotypes they carry around in their head.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.