Dear Kylie Jenner,
I don’t care if you’re a trendy fashion model. I don’t care if you’re rich and famous. I don’t care that the photo shot by Steven Klein was well-composed. I don’t care that it symbolized how your fame limits you. Posing in a golden wheelchair in a photoshoot for Interview magazine was wrong.
It was far more than politically incorrect. It was more than insulting. It was unethical. As someone without a visually apparent disability, you have no right to appropriate my identity for your photo spread. You didn’t grow up being constantly told that the way your body was created is inherently inferior to everyone else’s. If you go out alone in public, you don’t have to worry about someone calling the cops because they think that you shouldn’t be unsupervised. Employees of your local gym don’t use the fact that you work out there to convince others that the gym isn’t intimidating. You’re not disabled.
In fact, you have so much able-bodied privilege that when you pose in a wheelchair, it’s seen as sexy and glamorous. Yet when a professor I had never met decided to put his arm around me, it didn’t dawn on him that this might creep me out because somehow my wheelchair canceled out my breasts. My disability results in people desexualizing me, yet I worry about the threat of sexual violence just as much as an able-bodied person assigned female at birth.
My wheelchair isn’t an accessory. It is part of me. Although I’m constantly having to emphasize that I am not my wheelchair, and that referring to me as “the wheelchair” isn’t acceptable, people fail to recognize that I am, metaphorically, connected to my wheelchair. If someone behind me in class kicks the back wheel, I can feel it. When I’m in it, my wheelchair is as much a part of me as my feet are. So when you use a wheelchair in a fashion shoot, you are demoting my body to a fad.
It’s appropriation taken to a whole new level. You have blatantly ignored the fact that, until recently, people with disabilities have been institutionalized, hidden away from public view. Even now, it’s rare to see anyone with a disability on TV or in the movies. Often times, when we finally get screen time, we are portrayed as religious, inspiring, asexual angels. Despite this stereotype’s positive connotations, it’s extremely damaging. Like all stereotypes, it promotes the idea that disabled people aren’t people. We’re ideas put on this Earth to remind non-disabled people that their lives aren’t so bad.
When your fans tweet that the wheelchair is a metaphor for how your fame “limits” you, they’re saying my identity is a metaphor. I’m sorry to inform you that you can’t use people’s identities as metaphors, especially the identities of people who are constantly turned into symbols by the media. This is in addition to your assumption that people with disabilities feel limited by their wheelchairs. I don’t feel limited by my disability, much less my wheelchair. I feel limited by the fact that society views my disability as a tragedy that needs to be fixed. Being disabled isn’t any more of a bad thing than being queer. That’s why I often don’t use person-first language — e.g. “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” I refuse to shove my disability aside, and I won’t tolerate other people doing it for me.
I know that you probably didn’t intend to insult an entire minority group. In fact, you probably didn’t think of actual wheelchair users when the camera clicked. But now you know better. Disability is as much of a social justice issue as race and gender are. We all need to remember that.
El Wilson, i.e. the kid in a wheelchair