In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “When Wheelchairs Are Cool,” writer Ben Mattlin responds to the Justin Bieber wheelchair use controversy, addressing an idea known to much of the disability community as “wheelchair perks.” I mostly found myself laughing and nodding along, because I’ve previously been privy to a few wheelchair perks here and there. Since having a disability comes with an often frustrating set of challenges, I’ll admit that it hasn’t always been a bad deal to have the “disability card” in my back pocket – for trivial things, that is.
When I used to go to Mets games at Citifield, I’d always get stuck waiting for Shake Shack on a line so long that I missed at least a full inning. That all changed when an employee pointed out that I was entitled to cut to the front of the line because I use a wheelchair. I found this both hilarious and ironic, because I had my own place to sit while everyone else had to stand, so waiting on a line wasn’t the least bit of effort for me. Yet it was precisely because I was sitting that I got to order my milkshake faster.
Obviously, a little comic relief wasn’t a terrible thing, and the worst thing that happened as a result of going to the front of the line is that I got a few questioning, probably cranky looks from other people who were initially ahead of me. At the time, my logic for accepting the opportunity to cut the line was that this newfound milkshake advantage balanced out society’s general treatment of disability as a disadvantage. I figured while some may consider it unfair that I didn’t have to wait as long simply because I’m physically disabled, it’s far more unfair that not even a lifetime of waiting will make the world completely accessible to me. So, I decided I could just take the chance that was offered and call my speedy dessert an even trade, although it’s not.
As I look back on this, I realize that accepting a wheelchair perk completely negated my efforts to advocate for equal treatment of disabled people. Shame on me, I know. However, it’s quite the leap to say that because of these little (and actually rather rare) perks, it’s okay for someone who isn’t disabled to “play disabled.” Therefore, Mattlin’s assertion at the end of his article that such a thing is acceptable is where he lost me completely.
“Playing disabled,” which Mattlin apparently doesn’t mind if people do, is quite different than “playing the disabled card.” It seems safe to assume that Justin Bieber was in the mood for a taste of the speedy dessert of disability, and decided to fake a knee injury in order to use a wheelchair and skip lines in Disney. And contrary to what Mattlin says, this little game of disability that Bieber decided to play should not be lauded as cool. In fact, if Bieber really was faking his need for a wheelchair just for the free pass to avoid lines, then this actually means Mattlin contradicts himself. He says that you shouldn’t play disabled “for the freebies,” but you should do it because it’s cool. I genuinely don’t think Bieber sat in a wheelchair because he thought it would drive up his already meteoric level of fame while simultaneously showing people how cool it is to be disabled.
I suppose a major celebrity in a wheelchair could somehow elevate the status of wheelchair use because mainstream media has so much power to alter the public mindset, (though in the Bieber case, that’s rather doubtful), but in no way is that the same as encouraging society to develop a deeper understanding and acceptance of the complexities of disability.
Instead, it makes a wheelchair appear to be a toy or a costume piece, and it’s neither of those things. That doesn’t mean it’s not cool; it happens to be one heck of an amazing machine. But my wheelchair is essential to my life because it’s the only way I can get around. My wheelchair is intertwined with my being and I cannot remove myself from needing it whenever I please. Using it is not a game to me, or to any wheelchair user.
Of course, Mattlin does set forth the caveat that it’s only acceptable to play disabled “as long as it’s done with joy and respect — not to tease or poke fun.” While I don’t think Bieber was poking fun or harboring malicious intent, that doesn’t mean he was demonstrating respect to the disability community. I wonder if it’s even really possible to pretend to be disabled with joy and respect?
This veers into rather complex territory because pretending to be disabled is something frequently done in simulation exercises. Disability simulations often involve activities wherein a nondisabled person tries propelling a wheelchair for a few minutes or a few hours in an attempt to gain insight into the everyday life of a person who is actually disabled. Though simulations are meant to encourage a mindset of respect, they rarely, if ever, provide participants with an accurate reflection of the disabled reality. As it happens, in many cases, even the most well-intentioned simulations can result in reinforcing – not eliminating – participants’ unfavorable views of disability, causing them to perceive disability as a terrible, pitiful struggle that they’d never want to face.
Conversely, if people participating in a simulation exercise are full of joy and merriment, one of Mattlin’s requisites, then it’s unlikely they’re fully conscious of showing respect, and instead probably view the activity as merely a challenge or an amusement. This is equally as problematic as the notion that disability is a dismal state of being. There’s just no way a nondisabled person could ever experience the full range of emotions held by someone who is disabled. We can learn, relate, and come to an understanding of the people around us, but no one will ever fully know anyone’s reality but his or her own.
So, call it simulation, call it pretending, call it faking, or call it playing disability. Whatever it is, and no matter if it’s done with ill will, kindness, or anything in between, it’s not “cool” to play around in a wheelchair, the space that is so much a part of my identity and my reality. Instead, why don’t we enlist celebrities, or better yet, society as a whole, to make it cool to accept me, the person actually sitting in the wheelchair, for who I am?