Several years ago, I bought “Becky,” a doll from the Barbie collection. I had to have her.
Becky introduces herself on the box: “Hi guys. I’m Becky, one of Barbie doll’s school friends. I met Barbie, Theresa, Christie, and teen Skipper at a game one night, and we’ve all become good friends since then. As the school photographer, I get to take pictures at all the school events and stuff and even won an award one year for a picture I took of our Girls’ Basketball Team. Well, gotta go now. Hope we can get together and play real soon. See ya! Becky!”
Becky was a high school student and school photographer. Oh, one other thing: she was seated in a wheelchair. I bought her and placed her in my office. It took me a few months to realize why I was so drawn to her. I was working in communications, took photography courses, and had taught high school, but that was not why I was drawn to this doll.
It was because I used an electric cart and “Becky” represented a person in the world with a walking disability like me and thousands of others. I liked the fact that she was a part of society, a normal teenager, but just needed to use a wheelchair. What I liked was that she was embedded in the toy section and other students and adults would see that she was a part of society. What an inspiration for kids who live with a disability!
I believe that Becky’s mission, or reason for existence, was to deliver us a message. We need to be reminded that many people in our lives have disabilities. We need not think anything about those who use wheelchairs. They just use wheelchairs or electric carts to do their daily living tasks or work. Becky raised an awareness that using a wheelchair is what some people need. Some people need glasses, hearing aids, or special medical appliances to live every day. Becky was embedded in the media, and she did more for us than take pictures.
The first time I saw someone with a disability in a movie was when I was eight years old. I had stayed home from school, suffering with the flu, and my mom let me rest on the living room sofa one day. So I watched Heidi—a 1937 American musical drama film based on the 1880 children's story of the same name by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. The film is about an orphan named Heidi who is taken from her grandfather to live as a companion to Klara, a spoiled, crippled girl.
What I remembered most was that Klara used a wheelchair. I think it was the first time I saw someone using a wheelchair in a movie. It did not bother me, but rather surprised me that a young girl did not walk. Klara eventually stood up and could walk again, and that’s what caused my tears.
As the years passed, I found myself like Klara, in an electric cart (similar to a wheelchair) because of my multiple sclerosis. What I realized over the years is that film and other media have portrayed persons with various disabilities. I think that is good, because we all need to see disability as part of mainstream life. Not everyone is physically perfect, and that is OK—nature is not perfect.
I did not know that the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a wheelchair while in office until I was in high school. I bought a black-and-white picture of him in a rare public appearance using a wheelchair at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York, in 1941. He was introducing his dog, Fala, to a little girl, Ruthie Bie, the granddaughter of FDR's Hyde Park caretaker. Some critics feel that the president, not showing his disability, put the disability movement back many years. Why not show that someone has a physical challenge and can still work and run a powerful nation?
“Art imitates life,” as the saying goes, and nobody’s perfect. When we see a person with a hearing loss, a mental illness, visual limitations, or an autism spectrum disorder in films, I think that is good. Movies are just including every person into the stories they tell. None of us has perfectly white teeth, perfect hearing after forty years of age, or healthy knees. Telling stories about the “stuff of life” can make us all a bit more sensitive and aware that we are not perfect, and that is OK.
It is a wonderful cultural step to include those with disabilities in media of all forms! Perhaps more media inclusion would make disabilities as acceptable as wearing glasses.
As we all know, Nobody’s Perfect—and that is just fine!