It was a kingdom moment people! Another kingdom moment! Lying in bed watching the first episode of Speechless, the new ABC comedy which centers around the life of. . .wait for it. . . a person with a disability! I didn't know what to expect when I heard about its impending debut. Actually, what I expected was some able-bodied person pretending to have a disability, and lots of stupid jokes which fed stereotypes. I've learned to set the bar low when it comes to media's depiction of people like me.
My mouth dropped open the minute I saw Micah Fowler's character, JJ, as he drove onto the lift of his family's specially equipped van in his power chair. This was no "acceptable", virtually able bodied crip, and there was my chair on TV! Not in some sappy news story about some trauma victim going through rehab, but in a show about a teenager who also happens to have a disability simply living his--and much of my--life! What a concept! I looked again at the guy in the chair and thought, My God! I think he actually has a disability! (He does. I looked it up.) And I think it's cp!! (It is. I looked that up too.) Do you know how radical that is?--that they hired a real live person with a disability to play a person with a disability??!! Activists have been fighting for years to get Hollywood to do that. Again, what a concept!
And then. . . And then. . . And then. . .!! JJ and his mother confront some apparently able bodied woman using a handicapped parking space--another vignette from my life-- and as JJ, who cannot speak, gestures toward her with his thumb, his mother translates, "That's the finger." Now I know, it's not normally a very Christian let alone ministerial thing to celebrate someone giving someone the finger, but when you've heard the message over and over for most of your life that because the world has to put up with you and endure your disability you have to be angelic in every other way, seeing a positive portrayal of someone with a disability giving someone the finger is liberating. ("Positive " meaning this is not some newly disabled person who supposedly needs to "adjust" to his disability and not be angry anymore). Trust me, it really is a kingdom moment, a moment in space and time when heaven meets earth. Not heaven as in a place where I'm suddenly "cured" of cerebral palsy, but heaven as in a moment when my world is seen from my perspective, and that perspective is validated; where I am / we are treated with dignity, where there is humor and anger, and that anger is seen as a mark of strength, not something we should "get over". For thirty minutes, I watched the complexity of life with and feelings about having a disability acknowledged. For thirty minutes, I saw my life, my self, defined as a legitimate part of that wide and diverse spectrum called normal. "YES!!" I shouted several times, halfway between tears and laughter, pumping my fist in the air. And when JJ's mother got pissed off because the ramp her son was suppose to use was the same ramp used for the garbage; when she answered that all-too-real expectation with the demonstration, "This is garbage [lifting a piece of trash from a dumpster]. . . This is a person [pointing to one of the people around her]. . . My son is not garbage," I really did cry.
There must be something in the air. Because there was another moment, this past summer:
When Anastasia Somoza began her speech to the Democratic National Convention, I wasn't watching. Only after my sister called did I turn on the TV. And then, I stared at her. I took her in: An attractive young woman. The chair she sat in, the stiffness of her body; the tension in her voice and the pattern of her pauses for breath, they were all familiar marks of cerebral palsy. "Hillary Clinton sees me," she said. A simple sentence, yet one that conveyed some awe inspiring realities: The reality of being seen; not hidden, as so many people with disabilities before her had been hidden --behind closed doors in homes and institutions. The reality of being seen as who she was-- Not some poor, pitiful creature, but a strong, capable, beautiful young woman--who was all those things with her clearly visible disability; not because she looked like she didn't have one.
I might have dismissed her presence as mere tokenism, the requisite presence of a person with a disability to strengthen Clinton's credentials as a progressive. Politics being what it is, there was undoubtedly some element of that. But in her speech Somoza said she met Hillary Clinton when she was nine and Clinton was First Lady. The two of them have stayed in contact since than, and Clinton has encouraged Anastasia's professional development. Two other people with disabilities spoke at the convention, and indicated Clinton had also been in contact with and advocated for them over many years. Then there was this story during the presentation of Clinton's biography--At some point before she was anybody famous, she encountered a person with a disability who had been denied access to an education. Clinton's response was not, "Oh you poor dear!". It was advocacy. She worked through legal channels to help insure that not only the person she encountered but other people with disabilities could get the education we deserve. All of this--the years of maintaining contact and the long-term commitment to advocacy--suggested to me that whatever else was going on here, whatever else explained the visibility of people with disabilities at a national convention, it was more than mere tokenism. And to witness it, to witness the affirmation on this stage that we are not objects of charity but people who have rights; to witness the affirmation of our strength and capabilities in a context where I had never seen that affirmation before, was breathtaking. It made me feel seen.
I am significantly older than Anastasia Somoza and Micah Fowler. Somewhere in my years of growing up, I got the message that one of the primary purposes of all the therapy I went through was to make me look "normal," and normal meant not having a disability. Because the more normal I looked, the more society would accept me. The less disabled I looked, the more opportunities I would have. It is difficult to describe the impact of seeing people with bodies like mine affirmed not only by a segment of the disability community, but in the national media. How do you describe the impact of being seen? I can't even say that those moments have had concrete results. They have not minimized the literal pain and physical struggle of living with an aging body which has cerebral palsy. They haven't lessened the frustration or made me fall in love with my body. But I know that in some real if ineffable way, those moments changed me. Because I saw myself in a place I had never seen myself before, being depicted in a way the media has never depicted people like me before. And being seen is profoundly healing, even if you can't exactly say how.