On wheelchairs and fashion accessories

December 4, 2015

Even though I realise the vast internet has been flooded with numerous people proclaiming their differing opinions on reality star Kylie Jenner’s latest photoshoot featuring a wheelchair on the cover of Interview, I decided to add my own voice to that chaos as well.

It’s 7 AM and my alarm goes off. I blindly hit snooze a couple of times before finally giving in and opening my eyes, to see a white monster with a wagging tail who clearly believes mornings are great. After a couple of minutes I hear a key turning in the lock of the front door, and I know my caregiver who’s supposed to drag me out of bed that morning has arrived. Before heading for the bathroom I browse through my wardrobe and choose today’s outfit. I have a choice whether I’m going to wear that ripped jeans or not. I have a choice whether I’m going to put on that statement necklace or not. I have a choice whether I’ll go with biker boots or that other pair of all stars. Like others I can choose my look, the amount of fucks I give, whether I’m putting in effort or not, and what style I’m going to rock that day – all in the name of fashion.

But there’s an aspect about my appearance that I have no say in whatsoever: my disability. My wheelchair. In a way you could say it’s my #1 accessory, the one thing I “wear” everyday. I can’t just choose to get up and walk away from it – not when being confronted by a couple of stairs which are hindering me from entering that restaurant I’d like to visit, not when wishing I could be able to join my friends on the beach without getting stuck after 0,2 meters only to turn back around again, not when I’m home alone and spontaneously feel like taking a walk in the park but need assistance to put on my coat, not when having to conquer a street made out of cobble stones when it feels like I’m being turned into a human/milkshake hybrid, and certainly not when I just don’t like the look of it.

Some people are complaining and yet others are defending Kylie. The magazine itself gave the following statement about the matter:

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover is part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

Kylie chose the wheelchair to portray a feeling of being limited by her fame and life in general. I fully realise it’s not up to me to decide whether one’s feelings or thoughts are validated or not, but I don’t believe she chose the right way to express herself in this matter. To truly feel limited in her freedom and to slightly earn her right to use one like she did, I’d like to see Kylie Jenner to actually go through life in a wheelchair for a day or two – but not just as an able-bodied person with a perfect health, but rather as an actually disabled one.

The photographer, stylist, and/or Kylie could have chosen a variety of objects to get their point across yet they chose a (glamorized and impractical) wheelchair. It’s crystal clear they don’t get the first thing about them. Let me tell you a secret: a wheelchair is not a limitation. It’s a liberation. The true limitation lies in the disability itself, and not in the objects used for support. Without my wheelchair I would feel a hundred times more disabled than my muscular disease already has me be. Without my wheelchair I couldn’t go to school and educate myself like most other 20-year-olds in my country, I couldn’t head out to my job and (partly) financially support myself, I couldn’t go to the cinema and cry a river during some sad movie; I would be figuratively tied to my bed with no means of an escape. Fun fact: been there, done that. A while back I had an accident and wasn’t allowed to get out of bed for 3 months straight. It’s tough to put into words how mentally crippling that is, and how extremely lonely and bored you become. I wouldn’t wish that upon my greatest enemy, and I can’t even begin to imagine how it would’ve been if I wasn’t able to count down those days until my bones were properly healed and I could get out again. If it would’ve been for the rest of my life I don’t know if I could’ve done it. Basically Kylie chose a wheelchair to portray limitations, while in reality it means the exact opposite.

Some people are trying to defend Kylie and the ableism by saying things such as “this should be considered good for the disabled community, because it shows that (people in) wheelchairs can be sexy and fashionable”. Newsflash: I don’t need people like Kylie Jenner to validate that. And besides possible good intentions like these I don’t feel like that towards the shoot. Instead of seeing the wheelchair displayed as fashionable, I see it more as sensationalised. A wheelchair is a necessity for me and even though it functions as my personal pair of wings, I wish I wouldn’t need one in the first place.

Disabilities in general should be more often portrayed in mainstream media, advertisements, films, and books; a big yes. In a way I think it’s similar to people pleading to feature say, movie casts with a more diverse range of actors including people of color. But there’s a significant difference in portraying a certain part of the population as it is, and sensationalizing it. To me people like Kylie Jenner who are gifted with a fully functional body and a good health using a wheelchair as a glamorous fashion prop, is similar to your fair American girl next door dressing up in a sexy Indian costume for Halloween, or covering a typical white guy in loads of dark makeup to act as a tribal warrior from Africa in the latest Hollywood production. Not cool.

Leave a Reply