Words I Wheel By

October 13, 2014
by Emily Ladau

The Politics of Disability Representation in the Wendy Davis Wheelchair Ad

The Politics of Disability Representation in the Wendy David "Wheelchair Ad"

In case you haven’t noticed the dramatic media storm over the past few days, Texan senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’s most recent advertisement against her competitor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has enraged quite a lot of people. Since I’m someone who always looks at disability in the media through a careful critical lens, a few people have assumed I’d be equally disgusted with Davis’s supposed affront to Abbott. To be honest, though, I firmly believe people are overreacting. Much of society harbors some concerning double standards that are clearly evident in the responses to Davis’s ad.

First, consider the fact that Abbott mentions his disability in order to use it as a selling point in one of his own campaign ads. Set to uplifting background music, Abbott pushes himself up the inclines of a parking garage, narrating the story of how he worked to rebuild his strength after his accident. These rehabilitation efforts are framed as the perfect metaphor for Abbott’s leadership style if elected as the governor of Texas. Viewers are left with a message intended to inspire confidence in Abbott: “To get to the top we must push ourselves to do ‘just one more.'” So, if he can push his wheelchair to the top of a parking garage even in the face of exhaustion, then this must also mean he can push Texas to the top against all odds. There’s no real substance in the ad, no mention of Abbott’s accomplishments or policies. It’s just heartwarming fluff. The ad directly takes advantage of Abbott’s disability.

(See transcript below.)

Conversely, Davis’s ad about Abbott is set to ominous background music and tells of how Abbott fought to help himself after his accident, but has not helped others who have been in similarly difficult situations. This ad is far from the offensive blow people have made it out to be. Abbott already brought his accident and his disability into the conversation by creating the parking garage ad, so mention of his disability is fair game. This is politics, after all, and it’s a tough playground out there.

(See transcript below.)

Yes, Davis’s ad uses Abbott’s disability, but only as a springboard for the main point, which is to highlight what her campaign team believes to be Abbott’s wrongdoings and character flaws. Though there are major differences in the tone and intent of the ads, both use the same rhetorical techniques – exploitation of disability and tragedy to hit a nerve and convince people that Abbott is a certain type of person.

If the public is okay with Abbott creating a campaign ad centered on his disability, then it’s hypocritical to be angry at Davis for mentioning it. Really, the crux of the issue is that too many people believe disability is something that must be tip-toed around; how dare someone say something negative about a disabled person? Mother Jones writer Ben Dreyfuss exemplifies this mentality perfectly in his critique: “It’s offensive and nasty and it shouldn’t exist. She’s basically calling Abbott a cripple.” This response is outrageous and way off-base. Nowhere in the ad is it even implied, let alone said, that Abbott is nothing more than a cripple. Dreyfuss and so many other angry critics are essentially ascribing their own stereotypes to the ad, a belief that disability makes a person untouchable. This, I believe, is the actual nerve that the ad hit for so many people.

Ultimately, Davis’s ad is undeniably propagandistic and hard-hitting, but so are many of the hypocritical responses that stem from the fact that the ad is in stark contrast to the way people are used to hearing about disability. If disability is portrayed in a way that makes non-disabled people feel warm and fuzzy – as it is in Abbott’s parking garage ad – then most people have no problem with it. (For a prime example of this, look no further than my critique of the Guinness wheelchair basketball advertisement and the comments calling me bitter.) But in the case of Davis’s ad, it seems the campaign team did indeed cross a line, but not the line of what is appropriate, as they are so accused. Rather, they’ve crossed the line of the public’s comfort zone surrounding disability.



Abbott Video – “Garage”

Narrator: “After my accident, I had to rebuild my strength. I would roll up an eight-story parking garage, spending hours going up the ramps. With each floor, it got harder and harder, but I wouldn’t quit. ‘Just one more,’ I’d tell myself. Just one more. I see life that way and it’s how I’ll govern Texas. To get to the top, we must push ourselves to do ‘just one more.'”

Davis Video – “Justice”

Narrator: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims. Abbott argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb. He ruled against a rape victim who sued a corporation for failing to do a background check on a sexual predator. He sided with a hospital that failed to stop a dangerous surgeon who paralyzed patients. Greg Abbott – he’s not for you.”


Photo credit: KendallKaos / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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September 30, 2014
by Emily Ladau

September Disability News and Blog Post Round-Up

I’m not sure how October managed to sneak up on me, though it probably has something to do with how busy grad school has kept me this past month. I can’t believe it’s already round-up time again! As always, I highly suggest pinning or bookmarking the round-up so you can come back to it whenever you have a few spare moments. Let me know what interested you the most, and if you think I missed anything.

September Disability News and Blog Post Round-up - Words I Wheel By

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September 10, 2014
by Emily Ladau

Reflecting on College and My Commitment to My Disabled Identity

Reflecting On College and My Commitment to My Disabled Identity - Words I Wheel By

Sitting on the train on the way to my first grad school class last week, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much has changed since my first day as a college freshman. Five years ago, my disability was a part of me that I grappled with on a daily basis. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half removed from getting my undergrad degree, I’ve started the process of getting my Master’s in Disability Studies. And since the school year has just begun for so many of us, it feels like the time is right to come clean about the process of learning to love my disability as part of who I am.

I can trace my struggle back to the fact that my parents chose to send me to a mainstream school, so I grew up surrounded by people who didn’t identify as disabled. They were my teachers, my classmates, my best friends, and they all embodied identities I thought I needed to have. I spent years trying to dodge the realities of my disability, instead attempting to assimilate with the able-bodied people around me. Hearing someone say “oh, I forgot you use a wheelchair” was the ultimate compliment.

Making people “forget” was as close as I could get to hiding my disability, and I thrived on the feeling. It didn’t take long once I began public school to realize that I could embrace my disability only when it was convenient for me and then spend the rest of the time trying to dissociate from it enough to be perceived as “normal.” In other words, I had it in me to be proud of my disability, and at times I definitely was, but I usually wanted to stay away from my disability as an identifier, to be known as Emily, without being identified by visible signs of my disability. Looking back on it, I’m not even quite sure what I thought I was accomplishing or who I was kidding.

Although my identity issues stemmed from being a disabled girl in a predominantly able-bodied world, they were compounded by the fact that nearly every summer from age 7 to 15, I would spend a few weeks at summer camp for disabled kids, completely reversing my usual daily experiences. Contrary to my school year desires to erase my differences, my differences were oddly erased for me during camp. I went from being the token girl who uses a wheelchair in my school to being surrounded by people with what seemed like every disability imaginable. I was never in a situation where lots of disabled people and lots of people who don’t identify as disabled were all together for purely social reasons; my exposure to disability was essentially a cycle of all or nothing.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to college, my mainstream mentality had taken a toll on me. Not only was I convinced that I needed to separate myself from my disability, but also I felt the need to keep myself separate from others with disabilities. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but for years, when I would find myself in the vicinity of another disabled person in a public place, I would become uneasy, worried that the presence of that person called way too much extra attention to my own disability.

Being around visibly disabled people wasn’t much of an issue throughout college, because there weren’t many of us. Even so, I was starting to get tired of constantly feeling on edge about directly acknowledging my disability as part of my identity. My life had been focused on two modes of behavior: advocating for myself to be included and have access and equal rights, and then getting as far away from disability as possible so people would forget why I was doing that. It finally hit me that I had become a contradiction on wheels, and I realized how exhausted and confused I was from so many years of trying to figuratively extract myself from the mobile tank attached my butt to conform to mainstream norms.

I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I no longer wanted to feel like such a hypocrite. I wanted to be accepted, and the people around me accepted me as I am, so why couldn’t I do the same – for both myself and the disability community as a whole?

So, I started slowly. I gradually began to consider what being disabled means to me (a topic in and of itself). I dipped my toe in the water of studying disability, taking the few classes available on disability-related topics and taking it upon myself to turn my assignments into chances to incorporate disability themes. Every subject from ancient Greece to the medieval period to human sexuality became a chance for me to explore more about disability history and culture. Most importantly, I actively forced myself to stop constantly apologizing for who I am. This was, and continues to be, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the four years I spent in college proved to be the perfect time for me to shed the secret shame I held and embrace my disabled identity.

Want to know the truth? I laughed when people told me about all of their big transformational college moments as I got ready to start my freshman year, but the way my mindset about my disability transformed throughout college is one of the most important things I had the chance to go through. For better or for worse, it led me to make a lifetime commitment to owning my identity as a disabled woman.

Photo credit: epicture’s (more off than on) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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August 30, 2014
by Emily Ladau

August Disability News and Blog Post Round-Up

With the end of summer and the new school year upon us, I’m feeling a renewed energy for advocacy. August held an exciting milestone, because Words I Wheel By had its one-year blogiversary. And now, it’s already time for my monthly round-up again. As always, I highly suggest pinning or bookmarking the round-up so you can come back to it whenever you have a few spare moments. Let me know what interested you the most, and if you think I missed anything!


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August 25, 2014
by Emily Ladau

Writing Process of a Disability Advocate – The Writing Process Blog Hop

One of the best parts of blogging is connecting with amazing bloggers around the globe. I learn so much from them, and they’re part of my motivation to keep writing. So, when Sarah, a lovely blogger-friend of mine, tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Hop, I thought it’d be a fun little challenge. A blog hop is simply a task or series of questions that one blogger completes, and then invites other bloggers to complete it as well. And since I’ve been blogging for over a year, and writing for as long as I can remember, I’m excited to share a bit about my writing process.

The Writing Process of a Disability Advocate - Words I Wheel By

What am I working on?

Right now, I’m focused on two major things: starting graduate school and developing my career. (Read: I’m trying to accomplish a zillion things at once.) I’ll be pursuing my M.A. in Disability Studies at the City University of NY School of Professional Studies in Manhattan. On the one hand, I feel like I should have a degree in disability just for having been born with one and living with it every day, but I’m glad I’ll have the chance to dive deeper into disability law, policy, and history.

I’m sure juggling grad school while working on my career will be quite the adventure, but lots of people do it, right? My blog posts might just have to be excerpts from whatever paper I’m working on. Just kidding…sort of. Seriously though, I have no plans to stop writing because I love what I do. I’d like continue freelancing as a big part of my career, so I’m working on that, but I’m also going to be branching out into the world of professional public speaking. I already have experience with this, so I’ll be expanding on it. Eventually, my dream is to work for a disability related non-profit organization, and one day, I plan to be behind a non-profit of my own.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Though so many people write about aspects of disability, I don’t know too many people who have quite the same experience with disability as I do. My writing is shaped by two main factors, the first being that my disability is an extremely rare physical genetic disorder. The second is that both my mother and my uncle have the same disability. I think this influences my work in that I perceive disability as a defining part of my identity. Disability is, and always has been, in my blood. So, when I write, I have a life truly full of disability to drawn upon as I put words on the page.

Why do I write what I do?

Quite simply, I write about disability because it is so much a part of who I am. The culture and identity, the stigma and discrimination, the positives and negatives – I want to be open and honest about it all. I want to be part of larger conversations about what it’s like to be part of the world’s largest minority, and I want to share my own experiences. I want to speak for myself and to provide just a bit of insight to other people. And the one thing I can’t stress enough is that if you’ve met one disabled person, then you’ve met one disabled person. I don’t write to put words in anyone’s mouth; I write to be involved in advocacy and social justice and education, to contribute my voice to the much bigger world around me.

How does my writing process work?

All of my work stems from how I experience and interact with disability. Sometimes, an idea will come about from an impassioned conversation, and other times I’ll start by quietly reminiscing or reflecting on past experiences. While some ideas just pop into my head, a lot of what I write is inspired by current disability issues in the news or other media.

Once an idea forms, there are three possible ways I’ll go about writing. 1) I write notes or a draft by hand (which I did for this post). 2) I bang it out on my phone in the car or late at night before bed (which I did for this post on being part of the Americans with Disabilities Act Generation). 3) I type it a bit at a time in a Word document (which I did for this post on speaking up against ableism).

If something really gets me going, I can finish a piece in under an hour. Other times, it can take up to a week. When I’m done, I’ll sometimes publish right away, but usually I like to let a post sit for a day or two and then reread it from a fresh perspective to revise. Or, if it’s a piece on a particularly intense topic, I’ll edit and then read it to my editors-in-chief – my parents. I have always valued their perspectives immensely, because my mom has lived her whole life with a disability, and my dad has been around disability for 26 years. They’re both always ready to offer honest thoughts, arguments, or critiques, and I’m immensely grateful to them for that.

Ultimately, my writing process isn’t set in stone. The only sure thing behind everything I’ve written is my passion to connect with people and hopefully, in my own small way, bring about positive change for the disability community.

Now, I’d like to tag a few awesome disabled bloggers to get in on sharing their writing process as well, if they’d like: Cara Liebowitz of That Crazy Crippled Chick, Andrew Pulrang of Disability Thinking, and Alicia Searcy of Spashionista. And even if I didn’t tag you, if you’re feeling like sharing more about your writing process on your own blog, I’d love to read it!

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