My friend Alex just sent me a truly wonderful write-up from the Guardian about the newest member of the Lego MiniFigure family, who happens to use a wheelchair. He will be a part of their Fun in the Park set, which you will be able to buy for me as a half-birthday gift this June.
Even though you can build your own Lego-Person-in-a-Wheelchair, people are rightfully stoked over this new arrival. Even Lego was taken aback by the enthusiasm. Why all the hubbub? Because making something widely available that represents a person with a disability as a typical member of the community is the type of classy move that should become normalized. Like opening the door for someone else, or wearing a monocle.
For many people with disabilities, it is still remarkable to see examples of our experience in popular culture that are not somehow tinged with pity, otherness, or negativity. Think of the movies, television, commercials, books, art, modeling, and photography you’ve seen recently.
When did you last see
Someone using a wheelchair, walker, cane, or crutches?
A deaf or hard-of-hearing person?
A blind or visually-impaired person?
An autistic person?
Someone with an intellectual disability?
Someone with an “invisible” disability?
A person with mental illness?
And what was their story like? How well and fully did you get to know them: their flaws, their quirks, their sense of humor?
It doesn’t work to have a person with a disability in every story, playing every role, etc. And I don’t consider myself someone easily offended or looking to pick a fight in that arena. But disability is a big part of our human story. So, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement of that fact that more than a handful of times a decade.
And the way a story is told is important, too.
To be honest, I’m still surprised every time I see someone with a disability represented in media, art or pop culture in anything other than a stereotypical manner. If the disabled character isn’t a token, a poster child, a weakling, a burden, an utter inspiration, or a saint, it’s safe to say I’m sufficiently shocked.
Playing a part in the pop cultural/social/artistic narrative- and the complexity/significance of that role- has far-reaching importance. When I see someone I identify with, I am reminded of my own role in the world. It is a welcome affirmation of my own significance my community, and in the lives of those around me. But when my experience is wholly absent from the most popular media, the most widely read stories, it is difficult to believe that society expects me to play an important part.
Of course, I know there examples and exceptions beyond our Lego friend. One of the more notable ones is Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I won’t give anything away except the part that made me cry snotty tears (thanks, Neil). When Odd is offered a chance to have his “bum” leg exchanged for a “better” one, he refuses. It’s a pain sometimes, but overall, Odd likes himself and his life the way they are, weakness and all.
Odd shows us that the adventure of life should be inclusive; and that life is more about goodness than perfection. And Lego Guy reminds us that people with disabilities are pretty chill for the most part, and spend a lot of our time doing non-inspiring things.
But perhaps the most important thing Odd and the Lego Guy are teaching me is this: one sure way to fill the gaps of cultural invisibility is with creativity, with art, and with the truth of my own story.