Disability

What Queer Eye Got Wrong About Disability

The popular Netflix show is all about acceptance and self-love. So why is it saying the opposite about disability?

The Fab Five.

I generally love the revival of Queer Eye, and the Fab 5’s tireless advocacy for acceptance and self-love. So as a disabled person, I was excited to hear that they would be helping someone in a wheelchair in an episode of the latest season. But that episode, titled “Disabled but not really,” in many ways did the opposite of what it set out to do, and shown how insidious ableism can be, even when people mean well.

The episode centers on a Wesley Hamilton, a partial paraplegic man who uses a wheelchair. From the get-go, Wesley makes it clear that “my wheelchair does not define me.” “Yaaaaaasssss!” agree the Fab 5. The show positions Wesley as a hero who doesn’t let his illness stop him. His daughter calls him a superhero, the guys marvel at his ability to lift weights and do pull-ups, and in general, the show positions him as a role-model. “If he can do it, what’s stopping you?” the show seems to be asking.

One of the parts of the show that bothered me most was when Wesley talked about his mom. After Wesley became disabled, he said, he ended up having to rely on his mother a lot more, and a lot of his discussions around this point center around the idea that he’s a burden to her. That she’s sacrificed too much of her life for him. 

A black man in a wheelchair consults with Karamo Brown, who is also African-American, on Netflix's Queer Eye television show.
Wesley Hamilton consult’s with Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown.

It hit a nerve. When I was 16, after months of sickness, I was rushed to the hospital with sores in my throat that made it impossible for me to eat or drink. After a month long stay, I was diagnosed with lupus. For a sociable teenager, the diagnosis was devastating. I turned on my body and myself, hating it and calling myself names. Meanwhile, I hid my illness from my friends out of shame, which led, in turn, to me not taking my treatment seriously, and pushing myself beyond what I had the strength to do.

I hid my illness from my friends out of shame, which led, in turn, to me not taking my treatment seriously, and pushing myself beyond what I had the strength to do.

This continued for years: through college, and into my career as a nursery nurse (in America, this would be akin to a preschool teacher). But then it caught up to me. My inability to accept my limits meant that I pushed myself too hard until I eventually had a transient ischemic attack (TIA, otherwise known as a mini-stroke) in a roomful of terrified 4 year olds. I had to give up work, and rely on my parents for care. I felt so guilty about this that I paradoxically took  much of my unhappiness out on my mother, trying to push her away even as I depended on her. 

It only got worse, though. As my lupus became more severe, I developed osteoporosis in my hips and Snapping Fascia Lata or Snapping Hip Syndrome, a condition where the hip tendon snaps over the hip bone when flexed. Walking became more difficult, but I refused to use a cane, so that people wouldn’t be able to tell I was disabled. 

Soon, I became depressed. I started to drink, and practice acts of self-harm. At my lowest point, I became suicidal.

As I watched Michael talk about his guilt about freeloading off his mother, and watched the Fab 5 cheer-on his determination to not let his disability define him, I realized that while these attitudes towards illness might seem laudable if you don’t have a condition, they’re actually very destructive. My darkest times in disability have all had their source not so much in the initial limitations lupus placed upon me so much as my refusal to respect those limits, which only made me sicker and more depressed.

My darkest times in disability have all had their source not so much in the initial limitations lupus placed upon me so much as my refusal to respect those limits.

In the disability community, there’s a thing called internalized ableism. Internalized ableism is when a disabled person takes on board ableist opinions about themselves. This includes blaming themselves, seeing themselves as a burden, calling themselves ableist slurs, or refusing to accept their disability. From the perspective of a non-disabled outsider, internalized ableism can sometimes seem positive, like when the Fab 5 swoon over how many pull-ups Wesley can do compared to them. But that so-called “positivity” is often, in fact, a reduction of the disabled experience into mere inspiration porn for able-bodied people. (Put another way, if Wesley can do a bunch of pull-ups, it shouldn’t be qualified as impressive because he’s disabled. It should be marveled at simply in relation to his humanity.) And that’s ultimately destructive, because just like it would be suicidal for someone to ignore the limits of their body and jump off a skyscraper, telling yourself you won’t respect the limits of your condition is a surefire way to making your situation worse.

The reason this matters is because the media’s portrayal of disability is a big part of why we internalize ableism to begin with. As a teenager watching British soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street, my exposure to disability was often through this harmful lens. Because the shows I watched only treated disability as an obstacle to either overcome or succumb to, I took the same view myself when I was diagnosed with lupus. And it could have killed me, if I hadn’t ultimately realized that I could only truly ‘overcome’ my disability by accepting my body as it was.

Queer Eye means well, but I think, with disability, they got it wrong, inadvertently pushing a narrative of internal ableism that actively stands in the way of acceptance and self-love.

Queer Eye means well, but I think, with disability, they got it wrong, inadvertently pushing a narrative of internal ableism that actively stands in the way of acceptance and self-love. No, your condition should never define you, but nor should it be something you ignore. Instead, true self-acceptance can only come through embracing your condition as a part of you. Take it form me: to do anything else only harms you more.