Ableism: Discrimination Against Disabled People by The Wheelchair Teen

The act of writing forces us to contemplate things more deeply, to question what we believe. Bloggers, novelists, all writers lay ourselves bare when we publish. When we communicate our passions, readers are challenged to think — and they challenge us!

Thank goodness for the world of blogging, a Utopian alternate universe where anyone with access to a smartphone or computer, along with the internet, can send their unfiltered voices all over the world.

Without blog-topia, I would never have stumbled across Simone’s The Wheelchair Teen blog. There she lets us into her often fun, sometimes heartbreaking life. With good humor and patience, she teaches everyone to live with joy and compassion…

The Wheelchair Teen in her wheelchair.
The Wheelchair Teen in her wheelchair.

Ableism: Discrimination Against Disabled People by The Wheelchair Teen

Hello, everyone! I’m The Wheelchair Teen and I write about my life as a black, disabled teenager. I’ve been disabled ever since I was born and a permanent wheelchair-user since the age of thirteen. I’m British but currently residing in the Netherlands with my parents and sister. Thank you so much to da-AL for allowing me the chance to write a guest post for her incredible blog to help me spread my message of equality for all disabled people. If you want to see more of me you can find me at my blog called, The Wheelchair Teen – My life as a black, disabled teenager.

Ableism is the term for discrimination against disabled people, but unlike other forms of discrimination, it isn’t viewed as negatively. Most people don’t get educated about disabilities and remain ignorant. It’s therefore harder to get angry at people when they act ableist towards me — they honestly don’t know any better. So, when I encounter ableism, I sort of just have to deal with it and let it slide  and it’s exhausting, alienating, and something I shouldn’t have to face. Ableism is everywhere, and until people start to educate themselves more about disabilities, it’s something I’ll have to continue to deal with in almost every aspect of my life. Here are the five main ways that I feel othered in society as well as things that you can do to educate yourself and help to end ableism:

  1. People treat me differently

Sometimes adults talk slowly to me or avoid addressing me by talking to whoever’s next to me when discussing me. People pick up my limbs and move them for me without my permission or make offensive assumptions. At school, I was often alone because students were unsure how to treat someone like me and would therefore ignore me altogether. People stare, point, or talk loudly and rudely about my body in front of me and assume that I can’t understand. Little children occasionally even run screaming from me when I’m in my electric wheelchair. All of this makes me feel extremely isolated, alienated, alone, and othered  and that’s not even mentioning the different ways buildings and companies discriminate against me when I leave the house or go on trips. I’ve been turned away from places that claim to be wheelchair-accessible and discriminated against by employees.

Photo of The Wheelchair Teen's electric wheelchair.
My electric wheelchair.

I talk a lot on my blog about inspiration porn which is the objectification of disabled people as two-dimensional objects of inspiration. People treat us like we only exist to inspire people. I’ve had absolute strangers pass me on the street and tell me that I’m their hero. In fact, most people either assume that my life is awful and therefore treat me with pity or treat me like I’m a superwoman simply for waking up every morning like everyone else. In reality, my life is pretty sweet. The most difficult part about my life is actually how I’m treated in society  not my actual disability. I know this isn’t the case for everyone but you shouldn’t instantly assume it’s not. I’ve been disabled for as long as I can remember  I can handle it, it’s ableism that’s the major issue for me.

  1. They don’t teach about us in school

More education about disabilities is key in our fight to help combat ignorance. I’m certain that if my classmates had known how to treat someone like me, they wouldn’t have been so hesitant to approach me. Also, if children knew more about disabilities there’d be less pointing and staring as if they’ve never seen someone like me before, not to mention the children that ran from me terrified. Libraries should include picture books about disabilities and we should be mentioned in every diversity class along with other minorities.

Photo of The Wheelchair Teen giving a presentation about disabilities to children at a primary school.
Me giving a presentation about disabilities to children at a primary school.

Ignorance can be deadly: it is estimated that between 33-50% of police violence happens against people with a disability (although it’s hard to tell because it’s rarely recorded for statistics). I cried while reading through all of the cases of police shooting disabled people that they had been called to help in the first place. It’s a serious problem that not enough people are talking about. The police force needs to be better educated when it comes to handling disabled people – whether it’s shooting a deaf person because they couldn’t hear the police telling them to stop, or firing at someone with a condition that makes it incapable for them to stand still and raise their hands. They must be held accountable and taught that their behaviour is unacceptable. And these cases need to be reported and receive the same attention as any other police brutality case.

  1. There’s no one like me on screen

Disabled people are the biggest minority in the world with around one billion people around the planet being disabled. Despite this, we have one of the lowest amounts of representation in films and TV. Only 2.3% of speaking characters in films are disabled. Growing up, I used to think I was strange because I hardly ever saw anyone like me on TV – and I wasn’t the only one. We’re talking about representation in media as low as 1% for a minority that is around 20% of the world. 

Photo of The Wheelchair Teen with her hand over her mouth and the words: “Stop stifling disabled voices in media” on them.
Me with my hand over my mouth and the words: “Stop stifling disabled voices in media” on them.

95% of disabled roles are played by non-disabled actors, which is unacceptable! Able-bodied actors are critically acclaimed and win numerous awards for pretending to play a disabled person – but a lot of their performances (from the perspective of a disabled person) border on imitation and mockery. By not getting actual disabled actors to play these roles, you alienate disabled people by making them seem like mystical beings that cannot appear on screen, that can only be mimicked and impersonated. I’m not a ‘challenging acting feat’ – I’m a real person.

Meanwhile, real disabled actors struggle to get hired because people would rather see famous actors curl their fingers, twist their legs, tilt their heads, and pretend to be us for another guaranteed Oscar-nominee feel-good film. Filmmakers don’t want the real thing – they just want their own version of it, which audiences will then mistakenly believe is reality. I dream of a future where able-bodied actors playing disabled roles is seen just as negatively as actors playing other minorities when they don’t share their experiences.

  1. No one celebrates disability day

While throngs of people and numerous corporations celebrate International Woman’s Day, Pride Day, and Black History Month, the International Day of Disabled Persons goes under a lot of people’s radar. There is honestly so much beauty in being disabled, there’s so much to celebrate, and so many rights that still need fighting for. Help to raise awareness about disabilities by educating yourself and spreading the love this third of December. 

The Disabled Teen having fun in front of a carnival wall.
The Disabled Teen having fun in front of a carnival wall.

Like other minorities, multiple people throughout history have fought for the rights of disabled people. One day I was sitting in a history class at school when I realised that I knew about the suffragettes who had fought for my right to vote as a woman and the incredible civil rights activists who fought for my equality as a black person, but I knew nothing about the people who had fought for my rights as a disabled person. I did some research about disability history and I was so proud to see all of the people who had stood up for people like me. Their stories deserve to be taught in schools and history classes too. They deserve to be remembered.

  1. Disabled representation is awful

We’ve all seen disabilities used as plot devices: like the disabled or scarred villain who has a disability to show their dark, twisted mind or past on their bodies in a physical way; the action character with a child who has asthma so that tension can be built in the film when the main character has to rush to get the inhaler at a critical moment; the protagonist who ends up in a wheelchair in their weakest moment but manages to walk again once they continue to believe in themselves. And we’re all sick of it.

A disabled character created by The Wheelchair Teen for a comic.
A disabled character I created for a comic.

A few weeks ago, I burst out crying after watching a show with a character in a wheelchair that wanted to end their own life. It had been the THIRD show/film I’d seen in a row with a character in a wheelchair that wanted to do this. How can this be a theme in so many films with disabled representation? What kind of message does this send to people like me? If this is the only kind of thing a disabled person sees – what do you think they would start to believe? It made me angry. It made me feel like society thought that I’d be better off dead. Disabled people go through enough without having to put up with these types of horrible representations. (In most of them, disability was not the main focus of the show – it was just a side storyline. One was a comedy series, one was an anime, the other a romance film). I can’t believe that we’re still at this point when it comes to representation.

I’d love to see more casual disabled representation where character’s disabilities aren’t the focus of their entire existence – where they’re treated like normal characters that don’t even need to be the main focus of the story, representation where they aren’t healed at the end so people don’t think you can’t have a ‘happily ever after’ with a disability, intersectional representation where disabled characters can also be black or be members of other minorities, representation where their disability isn’t due to an accident – they’re merely born that way, etc. I’m currently working on creating a comic book about a team of disabled superheroes. It’s set in a sci-fi, Afrofuturistic world so there’s plenty of intersectional representation in it.  

Most importantly, I hope that disabled people are consulted while creating such a work. People praise films like Me Before You or Music until they hear from the actual disabled people that the film is representing and realise that they’re outraged at the bad representation. You can’t ignore the community when you make or watch films like this. Nothing for us without us. 

What can you do to help end ableism?

  1. Educate yourself and others

I recently started working on a story with disabled characters and I had to do a lot of research for it. I learnt so many new things like: the correct way to refer to certain disabilities, terms that are actually found offensive within the community, ways to make yourself easier to lip-read when talking to a deaf person, wheelchair etiquette, things that are okay to ask and things that may be rude, basic phrases in sign language, not to interact with guide dogs when a blind person is using them, etc. Education is key, I teach people about disability and even I still have a lot to learn.   

  1. Watch and read more disabled representation

There needs to be more outrage about films and books that go out of their way to discriminate against the disabled community and more attention for the ones that don’t. Read more books written by disabled authors and watch more films and tv-shows with us in them. Listen to our stories, we’ll show you that we’re much more than 2d objects of inspiration or pity.

  1. Support disabled content creators 

Apps like Tik Tok were found deliberately preventing videos with disabled people in them from going viral. More attention for disabled content creators means more normalisation of disabilities for their followers. I’m not the only one out there sharing about life with a disability. Also, add subtitles to your videos and captions to your pictures to make your posts more accessible for disabled followers.

Research citation: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2021/05/18/new-york-ags-investigation-into-trumps-business-turns-criminal/?sh=7ed291937332 

What do you think about media depictions of disabled people?

16 Reasons Pigeons Need Celebrating n Kathleen Rooney’s New Novel!

Doves get loads of love.

Pigeons get nada. Make that less than nothing.

Why?

As an animal lover since birth, the kind who was severely bitten by a dog when I was six yet who still never feared them, pigeon haters have always mystified me.

Hmmm…

Doves: white

Pigeons: colored

Hmmm…

Doves: a little trimmer

Pigeons: a little stouter

Hmmm…

DO NOT TAKE A LOOK AT THIS LINK that elaborates on what I’m getting at if you’re offended by ribald humor with liberal use of the f-word. FOR EVERYONE, THERE’S THIS LINK.

What do a penguin and a pigeon have in common? Sure, they’re both birds, and one might consider what I mentioned about doves vs. pigeons. In their case, however, that’s not what I’m getting to.

Marvelously, Penguin Books is publishing Kathleen Rooney’s most recent novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, about a heroic pigeon!

Kathleen’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, sent me into such complete nirvana that I invited her to guest post on Happiness Between Tails—and she did!!—in this prior post.

Today she’s back to tell us about the inspiration behind Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and 16 reasons pigeons need to be celebrated.

This is a link to buy Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey from your own favorite local bookstore.

Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.
Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.

On the Under-Appreciated Marvelousness of Pigeons by Kathleen Rooney

My novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey—a World War I story narrated in the first-person alternately by a homing pigeon and an American military officer, both of them real-life heroes—has just been released by Penguin. The fact that the publisher for this book is named after a bird delights me because penguins and pigeons seem like an auspicious pairing.

Of course, the story of World War I has been told often but never from the perspective of the courageous messenger pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion and helped to determine the war’s outcome. Cher Ami was so famous in her day that when she died as an indirect result of the injuries she sustained in the conflict, they had her taxidermied and put on display in the Smithsonian. You can still visit her there today in their Price of Freedom exhibit, where she sits in her glass case among other important communication equipment. My hope is that if you love pigeons and decide to give this book a read, then you’re in for a treat, and if you don’t, then you’re about to change your mind.

Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.
Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.

Penguin understands that not everyone shares my admiration for pigeons, so as part of their marketing campaign, they asked me to come up with a set of pigeon facts designed to endear the birds to other people as much as pigeons have endeared themselves to me. Thinking fondly of the pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon (as my spouse and I named them) who moved in under the eaves while I was writing my book, I set to work compiling those facts.

Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.
Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.

Coo and Walter and their babies Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald have long since moved on with their lives, but the pigeon facts remain, and I hope they’ll inspire you to look more closely at these remarkable birds and also to give my novel a read.

Coo and Walter's babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
Coo and Walter’s babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
  1. The word “pigeon” is a French translation of the English word “dove.” There’s no scientific difference between the two; they’re the same.
  2. The common city pigeon (Columba livia) is a descendant of the rock dove and is one of the first birds ever domesticated by humans, probably dating back to about 4,500 BCE in Mesopotamia.
  3. Humans and pigeons have lived closely together for millennia, thanks in part to the birds’ phenomenal homing skills, which allow them to return to their nests from up to 1,300 miles away.
  4. In addition to being good navigators, pigeons are extremely strong with high endurance and have been known to fly as far as 1,500 miles on a single trip. They can fly as high as 6,000 feet and average a speed of almost 77 miles per hour, with top speeds of almost 93 miles per hour having been attained by some birds.
  5. Because of pigeons’ homing talent, humans have called upon pigeons to carry the news throughout history, ranging from messages on flood levels up and down the Nile in ancient Egypt, to the results of the Olympic Games in Greece in the 8th century. As early as 500 BCE, the emperor of China used pigeons to receive messages in Beijing from outer provinces because a bird could travel in as many hours as it took a horse and rider days. Hannibal used pigeons during his siege of Rome, and Julius Caesar sent them to relay messages from his military campaigns in Gaul. Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan created a pigeon post that spanned a sixth of the world. Besieged Parisians relied on pigeon post in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and, of course, pigeons served as messengers in both WWI and WWII.During World War I, over 100,000 pigeons were used on the battlefield.
  6. Pigeons are included in the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park London in honor—as the dedication says—of “all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” It was unveiled in 2004 on the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I.
  7. People didn’t start calling pigeons “rats with wings” until this false idea was popularized in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories; pigeons are actually quite clean and not at all disease-ridden.
  8. Pigeons do not migrate, but rather adapt to one environment and remain there year-round—a lot like humans.
  9. Pigeons are one of a relatively small number of species who pass the mirror test for self-recognition.
  10. Pigeons can distinguish different humans in photographs.
  11. According to a 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pigeons can be trained to recognize dozens of words, with the most accomplished pigeon being able to learn as many as 60.
  12. According to a 1994 study published in The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, pigeons can successfully learn to discriminate between paintings by Monet and Picasso.
  13. When pigeons mate, they mate for life.
  14. Male and female pigeons share equal responsibility in raising their chicks. Both take turns sitting on the eggs and both feed the babies pigeon milk—a secretion that both male and female birds produce in their crops.
  15. Pigeons are still kept as pets, bred, and raced around the world; in 2019, a Belgian racing pigeon named Armando sold for $1.4 million. The auction house said that Armando’s athleticism made him, in soccer terms, the Lionel Messi of the avian world.
  16. The brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla fell in love with a white pigeon who visited him at the window of his room in the Hotel St. Regis in New York City: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life,” he wrote.

About Kathleen Rooney: she’s a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poems on demand. Her most recent books include the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte. Her reviews and criticism appear in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Chicago magazine, and her World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is available now from Penguin.

Do you like pigeons? (It’s ok if you didn’t before this post.)

When Life Gives You Oranges: chat+video w artist Uzo Njoku by da-AL

Books + Art = Happiness

Dear readers, that’s why, when I learned of Uzo Njoku through Bust Magazine (a lifestyle/feminist publication started in 1993), I thought of you. Many of you are novelists like me, most of you writers and creatives, and lovers of books.

"When Things Fall Apart," by Uzo Njoku: "My favorite book by Chinua Achebe."
“When Things Fall Apart,” by Uzo Njoku: “My favorite book by Chinua Achebe.”

Her self-published coloring book, “The Bluestocking Society,” launched the statistics-turned-art-major a couple of years ago when she was a 22-year-old college student. It’s filled with images and facts about all sorts of wonderful women throughout history. She also offers free printable coloring pages.

Uzo moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to the United States as a child. Here’s a writeup about her by the University of Virginia, and here’s another by their news magazine.

"When Life Gives You Oranges" by Uzo Njoku: "I created this when dancing the idea of me being an orange farmer if I was not an artist."
“When Life Gives You Oranges” by Uzo Njoku: “I created this when dancing the idea of me being an orange farmer if I was not an artist.”

Along with Uzo’s comments on these paintings, what follows are the answers she kindly emailed back to me…

Question: How does being bi-cultural play out in your day-to-day life and influence your art? And in terms of how you regard your own loveliness and potential?

Answer: Being in the middle of two worlds gives me more content to work with. My work addresses important issues such as identity, duality and spirituality, yet is approached with a particular openness snd beauty. The themes addressed in my work stem directly from my life experience as a female artist living and working between cultures, and yet the aim is to show how a single person’s ‘double vision’ can produce images that possess much wider social effects by collapsing racial and cultural borders.

"Stretch," by Uzo Njoku: "Exploring the limitations of the body with a simple leg stretch image against the stark contrast of a flower pattern."
“Stretch,” by Uzo Njoku: “Exploring the limitations of the body with a simple leg stretch image against the stark contrast of a flower pattern.”

Question: Many of my readers (myself included) are struggling creatives. How do you juggle making art, marketing, fulfilling orders, and attending university? How did you initially let people know about your amazing coloring book? How do you continue to expose people to your art?

Answer: Everything I have done starts from my friends supporting me. Constantly telling others about my work and word-of-mouth helping to spread the news. A lot of artists don’t have a business mindset, and I believe that is how a lot of them do get exploited initially. I took an arts administration class in college, and that really opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes. This helped me understand more what it takes for shows to happen and the right people to reach out to.

I studied Statistics in college before switching over to art, so by nature, I am a very technical person. I see numbers alongside art a lot and understood when it was time to pay a marketing personnel to run ads when I released a new product on my website. I don’t really know exactly what to advise people because everyone is different, but I learned everything from Google and YouTube videos. So a lot of research.

"Strangers," by Uzo Njoku: "I had a conversation at a bar with a man who essentially told me everything going on in my life, and then I went about my normal life the next day because we were still just strangers even though he told me everything."
“Strangers,” by Uzo Njoku: “I had a conversation at a bar with a man who essentially told me everything going on in my life, and then I went about my normal life the next day because we were still just strangers even though he told me everything.”

Question: How has the horrific politics of late as well as the pandemic affected you and your work?

Answer: I am not a social artist, so I do not create art based on political events. But in regards to Oluwatoyin passing away, I feel it was my duty to beautify her image because I know a lot of media outlets would try to show her in a negative light. A good amount of the sales during this period I have been able to donate out to small BLM groups and artists struggling during this pandemic.

Artist Uzo Njoku in her studio.
Uzo Njoku in her art studio.

Question: How do you find and choose your marketing personnel?

Answer: My marketing personnel reached out to me. He had been following me for years and felt that he could reach new customers for me. Basically, anyone who understands how to market on Social Media is an asset.

Question: What are one or more mistakes you see artists making business-wise most often?

Answer: I would say the biggest mistake is forgetting to follow up on business taxes when tax season comes by. It can bite you if you’re not careful. Also, you need to get into the habit of having a second pair of eyes look at contracts with you, whether they are those of a family member, a friend, or a professional.

Dear reader, if you didn’t do what you do now, what would farm oranges…or what?…