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Meaningful access means redesigning societal systems, not “fixing” disability.
NOT A FIX

“Queer Eye” demonstrates how we can show disability, but still fail to represent it

On July 19, Netflix released the fourth season of its hit show Queer Eye. In episode two, titled “Disabled but Not Really,” we meet the first visibly, explicitly disabled “hero” to be featured in the show’s history. Wesley Hamilton is a wheelchair user, a community activist and adaptive athlete who founded an organization called Disabled But Not Really, which is how this episode landed on its title.

Queer Eye is best known as a show about acceptance and personal growth, but it is also a show about design. Bobby Berk, the interior designer of the show’s cast, has been praised as the “unsung hero” of the “fab five” for his dramatic and intensive home makeovers, while Tan France, the group’s style expert, teaches subjects how to express their identities with fashion that fits their lifestyle.

As disabled designers, we feel the need to respond to “Disabled but Not Really,” and contextualize it within a larger pattern of stories that are told about disability and design.

Before the episode aired in full, Queer Eye announced its “Disabled but Not Really” episode in a season four preview.

We immediately noticed a disconnect between the way disabled versus nondisabled Queer Eye fans responded on social media. Members of the disabled community were quick to point out how the episode’s title and framing perpetuates the harmful idea that disability is inherently negative.

These criticisms frequently referenced the #SayTheWord hashtag, which was created by activist Lawrence Carter-Long to express a communal sense of pride in our distinct disabled identity.

As this conversation was playing out on disability Twitter, nondisabled fans of the show were tweeting about how much Wesley inspired them.  The episode was a platform for the fab five to teach nondisabled audiences about how integral design is to disabled lives and culture.

Hacking our clothes, homes and environments is part of the everyday experience of being disabled. We repurpose kitchen items to reach inaccessible knobs and shelves. We adapt sports equipment to care for and protect our bodies. We share tips on how to navigate urban spaces as safely and efficiently as possible. But the hacks featured on Queer Eye were used to demonstrate how Wesley was not really disabled.

This is one of the many ways that “Disabled but Not Really” succeeded in showing disability, while failing to represent it.

For disabled people, independence cannot exist without interdependence.

As members of the disabled community, we saw glimpses of our own experiences, but they were quickly reabsorbed into a narrative that deliberately distanced itself from disabled culture.

The fact that Wesley has named his organization Disabled But Not Really is a reflection of his own truth and identity. But the people behind Queer Eye have a different responsibility, as media spokespeople and influencers of popular culture if nothing else. The show didn’t address what discounting the disabled community triggers for many in wider disabled communities, especially those of us who devote our time and careers to disability activism and awareness. Framing the episode this way discounts an important reality: that disability is an identity, like many others—not something that needs to be overcome.

Consider the conversation between Wesley and Antoni about how basic activities, such as cooking, can be dramatically shaped by inaccessibility. Queer Eye did a good job of demonstrating the access barriers Wesley encounters, both in his home and at the grocery store.

Throughout these scenes, we see Wesley and the fab five repeatedly discussing his eventual independence. Access to independent living is undeniably an important tenet of disability rights advocacy. But support systems and care networks are a crucial part of this advocacy. For disabled people, independence cannot exist without interdependence, but the show seeks to portray these concepts as mutually exclusive.

It was jarring to watch Wesley show how he doesn’t ask for help from the very people who entered his life to help him. In one particularly poignant moment, Karamo tells Wesley’s mother, Dawn, “You gave up your life for seven years,” prompting her to reveal that she does not ask for outside help.

This was another missed opportunity for Queer Eye to engage in a powerful discussion about why “the myth of independence” is actually harmful for so many disabled people and their families, particularly when they occupy multiple intersections of marginalization. The problem is not that Wesley requires his mother’s care, but rather that she does not have access to support structures that she can depend on in turn.

Instead of acknowledging this, the show reinforces the myth by repeatedly focusing on Dawn’s “sacrifice”—even as she actively resists this characterization. The episode’s emphasis on personal independence at the expense of interdependence is echoed by its failure to address the fact that individual “fixes” are only necessary because of a societal failure to address systemic design flaws, and will never be enough to create meaningful access.

When Wesley visits his gym with Bobby, he points out the accessible push button on the door and says, “They got this fantastic button they made for me.” Bobby enthusiastically replies, “For you?” This interaction risks causing the audience to feel inspired by the gym’s generosity for accommodating Wesley’s access needs.

For many, disability is an identity—not something that needs to be overcome.

Alternatively, disability advocates would have related deeply to a discussion about how 30 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, gaps in legislation and enforcement leave disabled people dependent on the “generosity” of public agencies and commercial property owners. By framing this as a generous deed, it erases the emotionally exhausting work of disabled people who fight for their rights day in and day out.

Similarly, during Wesley’s conversation with Antoni, we learn that he would like to be able to cook with greater variety, but his choices are limited to the items that are within his reach at the grocery store. The goal of introducing new recipes into his daily routine is emphasized as a major part of Wesley’s transformation during the episode. Yet, instead of working on a systems scale with the grocery store to place more of a variety of vegetables within Wesley’s reach, Antoni put the onus on him to prepare the same ingredients in a variety of ways— ones that ostensibly require more labor.

Granted, the question of representation may simply be a problem with the format of this show. Representing a single person in isolation from the marginalized community they belong to means larger-scale social problems remain unaddressed.

This episode could have been a rare opportunity to engage a huge audience in important discussions about access, design and the roles and experiences of disability communities in society. But by calling this episode “Disabled but Not Really,” and by choosing to frame conversations the way it did, Queer Eye essentially disavowed the very community this discourse requires. In doing so, it also excluded the disability community as a target audience, because it is simply not possible to attract the very people you’re trying to separate yourself from.

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