Comment & Analysis
Nov 2, 2017

My Disability is Not a Costume

Dressing up as a disabled character for Halloween isn't acceptable and it certainly isn't funny, says Niamh Herbert.

Niamh HerbertJunior Editor
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

I am a sufferer of a rare neuromuscular condition called Friedreich’s ataxia. I was diagnosed at the age of 13, and because of the degenerative nature of my condition, as time went on I was forced to rely more and more on walking aids. Now, 21-years old, I finally gave in to what my body wanted and I began using a wheelchair full-time about nine months ago.

I find that as time progresses, more and more issues arise. Being a wheelchair user means that I encounter strange situations and insensitive people on a daily basis, and I’ve learned to just roll my eyes and move on swiftly because I don’t want to spend my life angry or upset. However, it’s impossible to be eternally nonchalant and sometimes certain things do get under my skin.

Over the weekend I received a message from a friend of a friend asking if he could borrow a wheelchair for a Halloween costume he was preparing. I didn’t know how to react, so I curtly replied that I didn’t have a spare wheelchair and that I would strongly advise against wearing such an offensive costume. Nowadays, the mere idea of wearing bindi and a sari or doing “blackface” for a costume is frowned upon, so why is the same sentiment not shared for people “dressing up” as somebody with a disability?

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Nowadays, the mere idea of wearing bindi and a sari or doing “blackface” for a costume is frowned upon, so why is the same sentiment not shared for people “dressing up” as somebody with a disability?

I was struggling to have my usual reaction of just rolling my eyes and shaking it off. I wondered if I was being too sensitive, but then decided that mocking a disability isn’t justified by it being a Halloween costume.

My friends constantly make the remark that they couldn’t imagine life as a wheelchair user. So, earlier this year, I hired a couple of wheelchairs and challenged my friends to live like I do for 24 hours. The idea behind the challenge was to highlight the inaccessibility of Trinity and the educate those using and not using the wheelchairs about the day-to-day struggles of using a wheelchair. Nobody made a mockery of the day, and it was very respectful. The same can’t be said for anyone wanting to “dress up” as somebody with a disability purely for entertainment purposes. People asking to “have a go” in the wheelchair for a bit of banter on a drunken Halloween night out offers no respect or consideration to those who use wheelchairs for mobility purposes.

Representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry and the media is a farce. There aren’t that many characters with disabilities, and the ones that do grace our screens are played by able-bodied actors. Most notable disabled characters played by able-actors were Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, who played a character with cerebral palsy, and Jon Voight played a paraplegic in Coming Home. Both actors won the prestigious Academy Award for Best Actor for impersonating people with disabilities. Not only is Hollywood perpetuating the pantomime of able-bodied people impersonating those with disabilities, but it is also rewarding this behaviour.

In a study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Ruderman White Paper, it was found that 95 per cent of disabled characters in the top 10 TV shows in Hollywood are played by able-bodied actors. The lack of diverse representation in Hollywood was confirmed in this study.

It won’t be news to anybody that the entertainment industry influences how the rest of the world behaves. Hollywood is sending out a message that it is okay to allow able-bodied people to mimic the behaviours and mannerisms of people with disabilities, when really it’s just blatant ableism.

The guy who asked to borrow the wheelchair attempted to make his request sound reasonable by telling me not to worry, he was only dressing up as Father Jack Hackett (from Irish sitcom Father Ted), who is a character from the show who relies on a wheelchair for mobility. I wonder does he also plan on mimicking the character’s jerky movements and slurred speech for the sake of comedy? I really hope not.

My deepest insecurities lie within the visible symptoms of my condition, like how it often causes me to have slurred speech and jerky movements, just like the character of Father Jack. My wheelchair has robbed me of all of my self-confidence, and even though I’m trying to rise above them, sometimes my emotions just get the better of me. I can’t begin to wonder why anyone would want to feign a disability for the sake of a Halloween costume and a few laughs on a night out. Are my uncoordinated movements funny? Is it comedic how my tongue sometimes stumbles over words? It’d be downright morally deficient for somebody to laugh at me for these reasons, so why is it acceptable to impersonate these mannerisms for the sake of a costume?

It’d be downright morally deficient for somebody to laugh at me for these reasons, so why is it acceptable to impersonate these mannerisms for the sake of a costume?

With the lack of disabled actors starring in roles, there is no denying that there is a lack of respect for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. This issue is only reflected in the wider world on how our society treats disability. Just as blackface became redundant in Hollywood, I have hope that able-bodied actors will stop impersonating those with disabilities. Only when that happens do I think that the acceptability of dressing up as a character with a disability for a Halloween costume will end.

My disability is not a costume and my wheelchair is not a prop, and both deserve to be treated with consideration and respect. Maybe it’s too late to change the minds of those dressing us as a disabled character this Halloween season, but I hope to see society become more considerate and aware of the implications of dressing up as a disabled character before next Halloween.

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