How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
As always for Oscar season, stars were ablaze on the red carpet and after parties across Hollywood. The year’s penultimate event signals success on the big screen, and more specifically which films and actors have “made it.”
In all the photos, one star who stood out from the rest for me: Selma Blair. Known for her roles in “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde,” Blair attended the Vanity Fair Oscars dinner and was resplendent in her black and pastel color block ball gown and cape.
She also used a cane.
Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in August of 2018. This is her first public appearance since her diagnosis. While she has spoken openly about her anxiety from having MS, it’s really only when Blair uses her cane that her multiple disabilities become visible to us, her audience.
This is a revolutionary appearance. Many in the deaf and disabled community have never seen themselves adequately represented in Hollywood films or the community.
In an interview with Healthline, Ava Jarvis, a chronically ill and disabled artist, spoke about what it means to finally see visible disability represented on the red carpet.
“When I saw the photograph of Selma Blair with her cane — I felt so much joy. As an artist, I know that people with canes and assistive devices are rarely portrayed glowingly in visual art, and often not at all. I feel invisible or ugly by turns. And here is Selma Blair... she looks radiant. I’m glad someone took such a good photograph.”
Activist Dominick Evans started the hashtag #FilmDis in 2014 to discuss issues of disability representation in Hollywood. On Sunday night, members of the disability community also used the tag #DisTheOscars.
Blair’s representation on the red carpet is important, and just the start of inclusion on screen: Disabled activists have pushed to see more deaf and disabled actors playing disabled roles, more deaf and disabled people in the writer’s room, and an end to stories where deaf and disabled people die “inspiring” deaths (seen especially in response to films such as “Me Before You”).
When she went public with her MS diagnosis, Selma Blair stated, “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy... but we are doing it. And I laugh and I don’t know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best.”
This statement firmly positions her not just as someone with a chronic illness, but as someone who sees herself as part of the disability community.
In addition, by speaking openly about her experiences, Blair makes herself relatable to those of us who have longed to see these experiences accurately reflected on screen. Her cane is not merely a prop, it’s a physical expression of her disabled identities.
So often, abled people see cane users as brave or tragic, inspirational or “something they could never do.” A glamorous Hollywood star using a cane can help push back against those narratives.
So many disabled people are afraid to even call ourselves disabled. There’s so much stigma and a mistaken belief that maybe we’re not “disabled enough.” Her example will hopefully make it easier for others to help end the stigma around disability.
Disabled people rarely get to see ourselves on screen. According to a recent report, only 5 percent of disabled roles are played by disabled actors. The other 95 percent are given to abled actors who are “cripping up” or playing disabled people on screen even though they themselves are not disabled.
When media representation involves only abled people playing disabled roles, it can contribute to the idea that disabled people are faking or aren’t really disabled. Worse is when disability is associated with villains, who often do a dramatic reveal that they’ve been faking disability all along.
We see this in shows such as “The Flash,” where the supervillain Reverse Flash fakes wheelchair use so that other characters don’t suspect he’s not really Harrison Wells.
Disabled activist Annie Elainey has produced extensive videos on the harm of “disability faker” tropes, and also raised awareness that many wheelchair users can walk, using the hashtag #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist.
We want to see ourselves as we haven’t been pictured before: as lovers, as successful actors, as more than tragedies. So often, abled creators miss the real struggles disabled people face: an ableist society and a broken benefits system that barely keeps us alive.
Where are horror movies about all the broken elevators? Where are our disabled superheroes? Marvel’s Hawkeye was originally written as deaf in the comics, yet writers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe erased his deafness.
Where are our disabled people of color on the big screen? So often, we only see narratives of tragic white cis male wheelchair users on screen — yet our experiences and our stories are so much more than this.
We have so many ideas — if we could only get into the room to share them.
We’re fighting for more representation and Selma Blair has signaled that she supports our community. Maybe with her help, disabled people can finally see ourselves represented in Hollywood.
Liz Moore is a chronically ill and neurodivergent disability rights activist and writer. They live on their couch on stolen Piscataway-Conoy land in the D.C. metro area. You can find them on Twitter, or read more of their work at liminalnest.wordpress.com.