Written by Elizabeth Rajchart
My photography studio is regularly filled with people with abilities of all kinds. I’m a disabled photographer, and I specialize in adaptive fashion as well as adaptive boudoir. I’m also a disability rights speaker and advocate, and I’ve been teaching and speaking on disability since I was in elementary school. Many of my friends are disabled, and people regularly share disability news and memes with me. It’s safe to say much of my life revolves around disability. In fact, sometimes I forget that in the world of most people, disability is a rare thing to see. That is, until I turn on the TV or flip through a magazine.
As a white, mobile, cis-het presenting person, it’s easy for me to find people in the media who look like me — even as a queer disabled wheelchair user. But I can remember that flutter of excitement when Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to win a Tony. I still scour the internet and entertainment magazines for a glimpse of Selma Blair with her cane on the red carpet. These images are so important to me because representation is more than just seeing people who look like us in the media. Representation is about seeing proof that being who we are doesn’t automatically lead to a life of shame and disappointment. It can even lead to a life of immense success.
Disabled people are used to being hidden away, or feeling invisible in society. Most of us can relay experiences of segregation, whether divided from others in schools, physically by inaccessible environments, or ostracized socially. A lack of representation only adds to that feeling of not belonging in our own world. We’re used to being looked at negatively, being pitied, being something to fear becoming. We’re used to becoming characticatures of “inspiration” to make abled people feel better about themselves. When the prevailing narratives about disability are “pity us”, “heal us”, or “kill us”, as broken down by disabled actress Maysoon Zayid, our actual existence as seen by abled society becomes just as flat and one dimensional. We’re not seen as full, real people, and therefore not treated as such. More importantly though, that perception becomes ingrained in ourselves.
By breaking the cycle of dangerous narratives and prejudicial perceptions, we can build a more accessible world. Showing and proving that we belong will only lead to the world accepting us and making sure we have a place in it. We can feel proud of who we are when we see ourselves reflected back to us. Representation makes us no longer feel invisible. We see that we are valid, valued, and needed. We have reason to believe we can succeed. We feel accepted by society.
I’ve always said that as a disabled person with the privilege of a loud voice, it’s my responsibility to use it to advocate for others in my community. As a photographer, my voice extends past my public speaking and my advocacy — my art is the biggest form of my voice. My goal is to use that voice to bring people like me to the forefront of the media and no longer allow us to be hidden in pity and shame. We are powerful. We are beautiful. You deserve to see yourself, to have society see you, the way I do.
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