Positive representations of PWDs (People with disabilities) are hard to come by. Pitiful, gloomy loners or the excessively plucky supercrip “overcoming” a disability to inspire nondisabled counterparts are de rigueur in the media’s unrealistic portrayals of the disability experience. Attempting to find reasonably authentic TV/film characters with disabilities is a challenging and alienating task—one that often leaves me staring at my screen, exasperated, wondering, “Why doesn’t anyone ever look/act like me?!” Invisibility is a bummer, y’all. Luckily for me and other dissatisfied crips, badass lawyer-turned-sexologist Bethany Stevens started a “visual culture” campaign via facebook called “This Is What Disability Looks Like” that shines a light on the real disabled existence. Simple yet genius, people with disabilities submit a personal photo to disabilitylookslike[at]gmail.com, text is added to the photo, it’s posted on facebook to adoring fans and voilà! Genuine, real representations of disability highlighting the beautiful diversity found in our community(s). I checked in with Bethany (the seductive wheelchair user pictured on your left) to find out more about this rad campaign, which you can find and “like” on facebook here.
Out of prurient curiosity, how’d you become a sexologist?
Mmmmhmmm, I do love prurient interests—clearly a main driving thrust toward sexology. I become a sexologist by switching my focus from law to sexuality. After finishing law school I joined a master’s program in Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. I took and passed the California Bar Exam during grad school thinking I would stay in California as a lawyer. I could not find a job that fit me, and a mentor encouraged me to join the Center for Excellence for Sexual Health at Morehouse School of Medicine, so I did. What made me want to be a sexologist? The desire and gift to talk about sexuality comfortably. There is so much shame and silence around something that is a really beautiful and natural part of life, especially in the disability communities. The disability communities and the world, generally, really needs a sexual revolution—breaking from normativity—between our ears and legs.
What was the motivation for starting “This Is What Disability Looks Like”?
I could tell you something fabulous about this being a deeply premeditated plan spurred by desire to critique the proliferation of inspirational porn (i.e., using disability as an inspirational marker; rendering PWDs (People with disabilities) objects rather than subjects). But I can’t—it was truly spurred by my wife adding text to a photo that was taken of a krip friend and I. It was well received by folks in disability communities, so I thought I should explore what the idea could do in a broader format. I started a Facebook page, sent a call out for photos, and encouraged people to spread the word. Photos poured in and have not all been posted because it is just me adding text to photos and posting them. It’s a shame responsibilities get in the way of making this project bigger but perhaps there is something to slowly providing tastes to people, so they stay hungry and wanting more.
How do you decide which photos to include? What do you consider positive representation of people with disabilities?
All photos submitted will be included in the project, unless folks change their minds. Again this is a solo project, so it’s taking time to sift through them and add text. Positive representations of disability are subjective and changing, so it depends on where you sit/stand/wobble/lay/etc. Right now, “This is What Disability Looks Like” posts photos sent in by people in the disability communities reflecting what we think is positive representation. For me, positive representations of disability are complex and difficult to truly describe, but the question of a positive image drives all of these meme projects. Surely, people think the inspirational movement is positive because inspiration counters dominant notions of pity and fear. I have been told by some I am creating inspirational porn in a different form by showing images that are too queer, too sexuality provocative, and too fabulous—but I am sharing what people are sending me. I find it amusing how much people read queerness into these photos, perhaps because they are not presented as heterosexual pairs. So the question of positive representation is subjective but may not really be the point of this project. “This is What Disability Looks Like” is trying to show a nuanced presentation of disability, rather than the small boxes we are so often shoved into.
People are REALLY excited about this project, myself included. Have you been surprised by the response?
It is awesome to know folks REALLY dig the project! I am actually surprised to see how quickly it blew up, along with how much people wanted to teach the work and write about it in various magazines. As far as I know, it has been taught in at least three disability studies courses in the US, written about in three magazines, featured in a mobile mural project in Toronto, and soon will be a part of Robert McRuer’s many talks abroad. It’s so wild that this all started with text on a photo—clearly, people are bloody hungry for images of disabled people that are glimpses of our real lives, not just flattened boring stereotypes of what we are supposed to be. I know I am tired of images of disabled folks that are supposed to inspire or incite fear; I want to see my friends, my culture, and my kripsexxxyfab self in disability representation!
Thanks to Bethany for talking to us. Photo of Bethany and Robin by Stan Bowman. Check out “This is What Disability Looks Like” on Facebook.