My entire life, I have been told by many strangers, “Has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful!” I find this statement to be both flattering and offensive. The question implies that there’s the possibility that no one, not even my own mother, has ever, not once, told me that I’m beautiful. The exclamation implies surprise that I could be so beautiful being that I am in a chair. Replying to this statement is always an awkward and uncomfortable situation. Do I simply thank the person and move on? Do I say, “No. Not even my own mother,” in a sarcastic tone. Or, do I say, “Yes, many have. People with disabilities can be beautiful too.” I usually just choose the easy and polite “thank you” and move on, as I know whatever my response may be will fall on deaf ears, no disability pun intended.
People are shocked to see a beautiful woman in a chair, and, for that, I blame the media and lack of awareness. For years, people with disabilities were hidden from society, placed in nursing homes or forced to stay in their home due to lack of accessibility. Once the ADA was passed in 1990 and Israel’s Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law went into effect on January 1, 1999, America and Israel changed by allowing people with disabilities to enter society as equals to the able-bodied. As we came out of our houses, nursing homes and forced special education classrooms and into the light of our beautiful countries, the public was ignorant as to whom we really are.
For years, the media has misrepresented us. Until very recently, the media never included characters with disabilities on television or film. When they seldom did, they portrayed us as child-like, asexual, uneducated, deformed, dying, unattractive nerds. This misrepresentation negatively shaped society’s opinion of us, right when we were finally given equal rights and the ability to enter the world and live life. Even today, when we see characters with disabilities on television, they are almost always played by able-bodied actors and falsely portray the disabled community.
Society needs to see the truth about disability. And, that is: We are beautiful. We are intelligent and educated. We are successful. We are sarcastic and funny. We are fashionistas. We are sexual and desirable. We are not a burden. We are an asset. We may use a wheelchair or have differently shaped bodies, but we are no different than the able-bodied.
I recently won the title of Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina and am now in the running for Ms. Wheelchair America, which are disability advocacy and awareness positions. With these titles, I hope to encourage television and film directors to include more characters and actors with disabilities; to make employers realize that we are just as capable, in some cases more so than the able-bodied population; to make politicians realize that we do get married, but are discouraged from doing so for fear of losing our benefits; and to demonstrate to society that we have been misrepresented by the media and underestimated by society.
We should all remember the most underestimated character in the Bible was King David. His “disability,” if you will, was that he was but a mere ruddy child and small in stature. But this did not prevent him from being the only one capable of slaying the giant Goliath with but a measly sling shot. G-d anointed David, as a young boy, and crowned him King of the Jews, despite the fact that David’s older brothers seemed to be more suitable for the position. King David later became the sweet singer of Israel and the greatest human king of the Jewish people.
Never underestimate yourself or others, strive to be the most you can be, live a fulfilling life, and show the world and the media that, despite our disabilities, we, too, are beautiful.
Ariella Barker is an attorney, published author and professor of law from Charlotte, North Carolina. She was crowned the 2014 Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina and will represent North Carolina at the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. Before winning this honorable title, Ms. Barker obtained her bachelors in business and administration and doctorate in law from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, receiving the dean’s list award and scholarship at both schools. After graduating, she was a litigation attorney for New York City and its Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. She is now a professor of law at Charlotte School of Law, teaching litigation practices and disability law. You can follow Ariella on Facebook.