There’s a PSA video circulating in which famous actress Olivia Wilde takes the physical place of a young woman with Down Syndrome, whose voice we hear. The end of the video shows AnnaRose, the woman with Down Syndrome, looking in the mirror and seeing Olivia Wilde, saying this is how she sees herself. In other words, she sees herself as a nondisabled neurotypical person. And so, in this video, do we, because we are not allowed to see her any other way. Except at the very end, we are not allowed to see her.
Disability activists such as Emily Ladau, David Perry, Dominick Evans, Sarah Levis, Richard Godden, and others, have complained that the video erases AnnaRose from her own story, erases her disability, and is therefore not genuinely accepting of disability. As usual, people outside the disability rights community are responding by slamming the “PC police” who are “offended by every little thing” and wondering how anyone could not like this video that is so “beautiful,” “moving,” and “poignant.”
Other commenters have argued that the audience the video is directed at – namely, those who haven’t yet figured out that people with Down Syndrome are actually people – won’t watch a video if it portrays a disabled person as disabled. These commenters argue that a conventionally attractive celebrity is the only way to get ignorant ableists to watch the less-than-2-minute film to the end and digest its message. Sadly, they may be right. But is catering to ableism the best way to change perceptions?
The media tends to sanitize its portrayals of disability. Two examples that come readily to mind are The Brooke Ellison Story and Extraordinary Measures. In these movies, both based on true stories, the disabled characters are basically portrayed as models with perfect speech who just happen to be in wheelchairs and have trachs. In real life, Brooke Ellison’s trach affects her voice, and she is partly reclined in her wheelchair (the movie made her sit perfectly upright). Megan and Patrick Crowley, the children in Extraordinary Measures, have Pompe disease which affects muscle tone in the face; there’s no way they could look or talk like that in the advanced stages.
The same argument can be made for these films that is being made for the Olivia Wilde video: how many people will watch a movie with a disabled protagonist that really looks disabled? (My Left Foot, anyone? Was that just a fluke?) The PSA video is worse, though, because it erases everything related to disability and says to disabled people: “This is how you should see yourself, without disability. If you see yourself like this, we will accept you.”
To what extent should activists have to accommodate the prejudices of their audience?
What if an awareness ad was targeted towards racists who would only watch it if the black narrator was portrayed by a white person in blackface? Is it acceptable to do the ad that way?
Do portrayals that erase aspects of disability (such as distinctive appearance or speech) prepare a nondisabled person for an encounter with an actually disabled one who doesn’t look like a runway model? Will the empathy engendered by the censored portrayal carry over to the reality? Or is uncensored exposure to real people who are different from us the best way to understand that they are people like us, neither better nor worse?
Is the goal to be seen as nondisabled? Or is the goal to be seen, included, and accepted as a person with a disability?
People who object to the Wilde video are not “missing the point.” We understand what the filmmakers were trying to do. But there are serious questions about the way they did it, and I wish more people would take those questions seriously.
Finally, here’s a link to an alternative version of the video from a woman with Down Syndrome: How do you see me?