As a visibly disabled woman, I never have the option to choose if I want to put myself on display. People stare at me, often directly and unabashedly, because my wheelchair demands attention. I’m not sitting to make a cultural statement, though. I’m sitting because it’s my reality.
Kylie Jenner, however, is sitting in a black and gold wheelchair on the cover of Interview magazine because it’s supposedly a metaphor for her reality. Interview defended this choice, claiming that Jenner’s wheelchair poses are meant to be commentary on the attention she receives as “an object of vast media scrutiny.” To Jenner, the wheelchair is something she can try on, a bold accessory to accompany the rest of her appearance. Everything she does makes heads turn, so why not give the public another reason to gawk?
In the Interview article, Jenner gives some insight into her desire to drastically alter her looks from time to time, explaining to Chris Wallace that she is “all about, like, experimenting” as a way to figure out her identity. It seems that adding a wheelchair to Jenner’s scant outfit is nothing more than a provocative game of dress-up. This is extremely inappropriate, because wheelchairs are not a costume choice. My wheelchair is not a symbol of an identity to try on. It is part of who I am.
While Interview’s creative team seems to believe that it is okay to use a wheelchair as a prop, many people who are actually disabled beg to differ. Outside of Jenner’s celebrity bubble, where posing in a wheelchair is deemed edgy and daring, real wheelchair users don’t have the same luxury. The Kardashian-Jenner clan deliberately chose to put themselves in the limelight and continuously clamor for attention, and exploiting a facet of my reality to tell that story certainly doesn’t garner any sympathies from me.
In a twisted way, though, I understand Jenner’s search for identity among the barrage of attention. I, too, am reduced to my appearance and subjected to judgment without people knowing me. People are often quick to make superficial assessments about who I am just by looking me. Like Jenner, disabled people are frequently ogled like museum pieces, but whereas Jenner can essentially do whatever she wants without risking her position as a media darling, much of society still stigmatizes the disability community as though we are lepers.
Perhaps Jenner should be more sensitive to this, considering that she discusses her anti-bullying Instagram campaign, #IAmMoreThan, in her interview. She reveals that since "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" first aired on television, she has dealt with bullying and negativity. Indeed, people can be cruel, especially to those in the spotlight, but I don’t believe that Jenner knows the first thing about true experiences with oppression, and her photo shoot definitely didn’t help. I have been mocked because of my wheelchair, discriminated against, outright rejected, and pushed away. #IAmMoreThan my wheelchair, but in countless ways, it defines how other people perceive me, and how they treat me. It is far more than a temporary state of affairs or a fashion faux pas. Whether I’m naked, dressed to the nines, or keeping it casual, my wheelchair is always there, and people can always see it. I cannot simply stand up, leave it empty in a photography studio, and forget about it.
And people will forget about it. Jenner in a wheelchair has everyone talking, but as she walks away from this photo shoot and moves on to the next one, will Hollywood take any of the controversy to heart? Certainly, it was wrong of Jenner to sit in a wheelchair for a magazine cover, but this is not the real issue. The true problem lies in that a wheelchair is seen as artistic if it is graced by the rear of an established non-disabled celebrity, but actual disabled people are almost completely ignored in mainstream media.
I grew up and continue to live in a world where I am not reflected back at myself by the media I consume. A loving family and a logical mind taught me that I am a whole human worthy of love and acceptance, but most of what I read and see tells me otherwise. Disability rarely features prominently in supporting roles, let alone leading ones. And if it shows up at all, disability is hardly ever just there without a stereotypical media trope behind it. Disabilities are nearly always exploited to convey some kind of message, as is the case with Jenner’s photos. The media tends to remember that disabilities exist only when they are useful for a story line, rather than recognizing disabilities for what they really are for so many people: a fact of life.
A complex fact of life, that is. I work each day to embrace self-love in the midst of a society that believes disability makes me unattractive and undesirable. So many people who have visible disabilities experience deeply rooted feelings of physical inadequacy that stem from the ways our appearances are addressed. If I’m told I’m attractive, it’s often said that I’m “attractive for a girl in a wheelchair.” But Jenner is considered sexy, full stop, because people know the wheelchair is only pretend. For real women who use wheelchairs, there is so often some kind of caveat to acknowledgment of our beauty, because mobility equipment is not in line with conventional beauty standards. It’s dangerous thinking for a nondisabled person to admit to finding a person attractive regardless of disability, because society might judge that person, too.
To move beyond this kind of discrimination and reach a point of true acceptance of disability, wheelchairs must be more than a prop. Disabilities must be acknowledged as a reality, rather than appropriated and referred to as “art.” There is beauty to be found among people who use wheelchairs, so much so that we should not have to put a non-disabled celebrity in a wheelchair and call it art. It is time for disability to stop existing in the media only when it serves a purpose, because the lives of disabled people may not always be glamorous, but they are more real than Jenner’s picture will ever be.