Media Portrayals of Resilience in Disability and Illness

[ estimated reading time: 3 minutes ]
A friend and I were having a brief discussion about people with disabilities and how we are portrayed by the media. You’ve all heard the stories: Despite their disability, so and so did ________.  However, how often do hear about the people who are severely disabled to the point that they can’t do ________? (And please don’t mistake me for being bitter, because I’m not. I’ve been there, when “despite having fibromyalgia, I made it to college.”)

This sends the message that disabled people are okay to be around only if their disability still means they can be somewhat-able, if they can still inspire people (i.e. “inspiration porn”), but not if it crosses a line into stopping them from “being productive” (of which unrelenting sickness is an example). 

I feel this is just too scary a concept for most people to acknowledge. Imagine, having to find meaning in yourself and your life when you can’t always be “doing something”! As my friend mentioned, “People don’t know how to place value on someone who can’t work.”

You’re somehow not near as much a hero as those who “don’t let it stop them,” even if you have no choice but to be stopped. We don’t make good news stories, this lot. However, I’m here to affirm that I am no less of a survivor and a warrior just because I am too ill to be inspiration porn for the news stations.

And pity is absolutely out of the question. Don’t pity me, because chances are I may actually have more strength than most people you meet, due to what I’ve been through. Don’t value me based on whether I can lift the gallon of milk that day, or how many university classes I can still take “in spite of being disabled.” Value me because I’ve accumulated wisdom, compassion, because I’m a good person.

An article printed in U.S. News & World Report:

“It is a primary example of what I have been calling the myth of the ‘superkid,’ who walks between raindrops, confronts any challenge and emerges unscarred and unscathed, never experiences a moment’s pain,” says Washington, D.C., psychologist Sybil Wolin…

“The notion we try to put forth is that resilience embodies a paradox,” she says. “We’re talking about the capacity to rebound from experience, mixed with all the damage and problems that adversity can cause. It’s not an either/or thing. And this ‘media resilience’ does kids who are struggling no good, does professionals no good in understanding them, has downright dangerous policy implications, and frankly, gives resilience…a bad name.

I get so tired of observing film and writing where the characters going through these awful situations–illness, abuse, tragedy, or other trauma–are made to appear completely unharmed and “resilient” to the point of pure fantasy. Tuesdays with Morrie, however incredible it may be, immediately springs to mind. It usually goes something to the effect of, “Every day of his life was misery, but he never complained about it,” or, “Despite the haunting memories of her past, she put it all aside and went forth without hesitation.”

NO ONE DOES THAT. It’s wildly inauthentic and really bothers me.

Yes, he may be resilient and strong and continue to value life despite his situation but of course he complained. No, she may not let her past hold her back and yes, she chooses to move forward but of course it was on her mind every step of the way, and of course she hesitated.

Resilience is not some fantastical application of optimism to the point where you cannot see anything else. Resilience is seeing everything very, very clearly and yet moving on in spite of it!

“The greatest human achievement is not success, but facing an unchangeable fate with great courage.” (Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, author, holocaust survivor)

a rainbow at night

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9 thoughts on “Media Portrayals of Resilience in Disability and Illness

  1. As a former able-bodied person, I am very disappointed in the illusion of “despite their disability, so and so did _________.” They sold me lies!! I always thought, in my little able-bodied mind, that if I ever became disabled, I would be so and so. I never actually thought about it that much, but as an able-bodied person I did not have the conception of what it could be like.

    But I’m not so and so. I tried very very very very hard to be so and so, a lot harder than a lot of people would try, I think. But “positive energy” and “not letting” _____ disease slow you down CANNOT contend with the lack of strength in your body and mind. You’re right…most people with disabilities don’t make good stories for the media.

    And I agree about EVEN THOUGH HIS LIFE WAS A HORRIBLE TRAGEDY, HE WAS STILL CHIPPER EVERY DAY. That just…doesn’t happen. People get upset and angry and tired. Those are natural emotions! It’s like creating the an image of what humanity “should” be like, when really it doesn’t exist, and then making people feel bad for not living up to it. I don’t even think people should be like that.

    I was taught as a child that I did not have the right to be angry, even when people were doing really horrible things to me. People should get angry sometimes! To not get angry when something really bad happens to you is to not place a value on your existence. God values you, so you should too! Of course, you have to move on eventually….but you are allowed to have that. It’s okay.

    Okay….the rambling probably makes no sense anymore, so I’m going to stop! I hope I make some kind of a point.

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  2. I totally get this! I had never really thought of that before, but it makes complete sense. I think my family is looking for me to find some internal strength and pull myself out of this sickness, but really, going from my bed to the couch and dropping my son off at preschool is often doing just that. It just doesn’t look like that!

    Also, I really understand the media issue. I’m working on a memoir about losing my house in a wildfire when I was pregnant. I often feel like I’m supposed to put a happier spin on it than there really was. It sucked. It sucked a lot. I’ve even had people on my fire blog made inappropriate comments about my complaining as though having my house burn down and then getting very sick aren’t worthy of complaining. It’s really stupid. Thanks for letting me rant!

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    1. Definitely! Some people can’t even fathom the value of strength to someone who’s battling chronic, potentially fatal infection, every day of their life. But you just need to be more positive, right? ;)

      Goodness, I’m sorry to hear about that “accident,” and it’s appalling that someone would think such things weren’t worth a good rant or two. We move forward but we still have to stop and get things off our chest in order to get there–I’m sorry someone decided to use YOU to get things off of THEIR chest in such an immature manner!

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