Recently, a Rutgers University study found that more than 10 percent of the nation’s elected officials at the federal, state and local level has a disability. That doesn’t necessarily mean people like me have unprecedented power yet—the number still lags the 15 percent disability rate for the overall adult population—but it’s nearly 2 percentage points higher than the preceding survey four years earlier. That’s progress, no matter how small.
This is part of a trend I’ve been tracking.
The ADA effect
One of the Rutgers co-authors noted that more disabled folks have been running for office since passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Many, like Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, are military veterans. Others are young enough to scarcely remember a time before we disabled people had rights.
I’ve been researching this younger generation—the ADA generation—for a new book. It’s not surprising, really, that they’re gaining prominence in politics. They’ve been popping up in all kinds of places.
In the summer of 2018, for instance, the lingerie brand Aerie gained much media attention (and market share) with ads that showed women of all shapes, sizes, colors—and disabilities (amputations, scars, colostomy bags, insulin pumps, you name it).
Around the same time, a Times Square billboard for Olay featured Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy.
Last summer, Aaron Philip, a transgender woman with cerebral palsy, became the model for Sephora, Dove and a Miley Cyrus video.
Next year, Abercrombie and Fitch will brandish photos of authors/YouTube sensations Shane Burcaw, who has spinal muscular atrophy, and his fiancée Hannah Aylward.
As a 57-year-old lifelong wheelchair user, I’m stunned and inspired. When did disability become a hot commodity? People with disabilities have literally become Vogue cover models. This goes far beyond what those of us who fought for the ADA ever imagined.
No longer just beautiful on the inside
Back then, disabilities were hidden or marginalized, certainly infrequent in the public sphere. Remember Cousin Geri on the Norman Lear sitcom “The Facts of Life”? Or Corky Thatcher on the prime-time soap opera “Life Goes On”? If you do, they were surely groundbreaking. But not like what I’m seeing today.
Those portrayals may have been more realistic than what had come before, and no doubt did a lot to normalize disability for many Americans, but they were relatively minor characters. You might’ve referred to them as “beautiful on the inside.” They were far from the current disabled role models and style icons.
The beauty industry has learned that diversity sells, of course. That’s why we’re seeing so many models of color, of different ages and gender identities. Including disability in the mix just makes sense.
Yet the trend extends to other branches of popular culture. Earlier this year, paraplegic actress-singer Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair-using performer ever to win a Tony Award. (And it wasn’t for playing somebody’s dear old granny, say, or The Glass Menagerie‘s vulnerable wallflower Laura, but for embodying Ado Annie, the hot-to-trot flirt in Oklahoma!)
On TV, programs such as Netflix’s “Special” and the recently canceled ABC sitcom “Speechless” bat about terms like “ableism” to mainstream comic effect. The actor-comedian Maysoon Zayid is rumored to be developing her own as-yet-unnamed series, too.
To be sure, social media has played a role in this. Young people hold nothing back on Instagram and the rest. Cyberspace is bursting with a veritable cavalcade of impaired bodies (#disabled_fashion, #wheelie_good_life, #disabilityisdiversity) in fabulous locations, engaged in fabulous activities, wearing ball gowns and bikinis.
They’re demonstrating that disabled people can go anywhere and do anything. To me, this represents a new kind of activism. It’s making a point in a way my generation of ADA veterans never could. We fought for legislative change, which was necessary to ensure our civil rights. But we thought it was all about equal access to employment and public spaces. Few of us could imagine the current celebration of disability pizzazz and sexiness!
Sure, there’s still traditional political activism. Groups such as ADAPT continue to fight for deinstitutionalization. Even the ADA’s gains have come under fire from reactionaries.
But this new generation of advocates is blazing a completely new kind of trail for disability justice. Their message is clear: We are beautiful as we are. Don’t look away. Don’t shut us away. Indeed, our presence can enhance the view.
Ben Mattlin’s most recent book is IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance. He is also the author of Miracle Boy Grows Up.