At 15, Emily Flores had already witnessed her fair share of misrepresentation and ableism, i.e. unfair treatment of people because they have a disability. Emily, who lives in Austin, in the US state of Texas, has muscular dystrophy, a muscle-wasting condition. She uses a wheelchair.
There was clear discrimination against her form of disability. Even some of her teachers thought she was unable to succeed on her own.
“My English teacher doubted my abilities in writing an essay or analysing a book, which is why the teacher never took me seriously as a student until I started turning in assignments,” Emily, now 17 and a senior secondary school student, said.
“Being a person with a disability, there were plenty of frustrating moments. But the biggest was getting able-bodied people to understand my identity: being a disabled teenage girl. One part of me is not less than the other, and the other is not more than. It’s hard for society to swallow this pill.”
But there is another, perhaps larger issue Emily and other teens with disabilities often face: false information in media, such as films and television shows.
“[The media] portrays disabled people and especially disabled children as little children who just don’t have their own real lives,” Emily said.
Television shows like ABC’s Speechless, a sitcom featuring a character with cerebral palsy, work to highlight the humour of disability rather than treating their characters like gods or saying bad things about them. But there still is more to be done.
“I don’t think there’s enough shows that really depict what life is really like,” Emily said.
Many stories featuring stereotypes are made by people without disabilities, resulting in a lack of realistic representation. For instance, the Oscar-winning film The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as famous scientist Dr Stephen Hawking, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease. The film faced a backlash from members of the disabled community because a man without disabilities was cast to play Hawking.
In the spring of 2018, Emily decided to raise her voice in protest. Emily started a magazine produced by young disabled people like her. Cr*pple Magazine gives teens living with disabilities a chance to represent themselves. “I noticed that a lot of [disabled] individuals started reclaiming it as some sort of identity and [I] always liked the idea. But I guess the main reason why I chose the name was because I feel like it kind of shocks you. It’s kind of like, ‘Whoa, who would name a magazine about disability like that?’ And I think it starts a conversation around honesty,” Emily said.
That honesty begins with recognising that people with disabilities are not defined by their physical condition.
“We are in fashion, in the runways and photo shoots. We are in the news, and are valued enough to be heard in politics. We are LGBT, living happily and freely. We are diversity, ranging from all skin colours and languages and backgrounds. We are in the arts, creating meaningful pieces and art that speak louder than words. Basically, we are everywhere,” Cr*pple Magazine’s website says.
Emily wanted to bring teens from around the world together through writing and publishing and to broaden the scope of voices available in Cr*pple Magazine. The contributors, more than 20 writers and artists, are all in their teens and 20s.
“I chose to cater this magazine towards teens because I’m a teen, but also I think it’s so powerful when you’re giving a platform to teens, and especially a marginalised community,” Emily said.
Cr*pple Magazine covers a variety of topics, including LGBT issues and pop culture reviews. Some articles, like “No, NPR, More Pain Is Not the Answer for Teens with Chronic Pain”, take a look at misconceptions in politics and media.
Writing for Cr*pple Magazine gave Isaiah Piche, a university student from New York, an opportunity to stand up for issues such as LGBT inclusivity with disability. He’s written articles, such as “Why Other Pride Events Should Learn From Long Beach Pride” and “What Does It Mean to ‘Come Out’ As Gay and Disabled?”
“I was tired of being voiceless. I knew my experience has merit. [Cr*pple Magazine] gave me a meaningful platform,” he said.
Andi Kerr, 18, another writer, feels the same way as her peers. Much like Isaiah and Emily, Andi also advocates for accurate media representation of people with disabilities.
“There’s definitely some [positive representation], and I appreciate the effort, but I think we’re still seeing too much of disabled villains and the theory that disabled people are an inspiration, rather than just people. We need more disabled representation to show younger disabled children that they’re not broken, and they’re not there for sympathy,” said Andi.
Cr*pple Magazine gives contributors an opportunity to publish stories and realise their artistic potential, but it is also a community.
“Everyone I’ve met is extremely dedicated and driven. We always discuss our ideas together as a group and get input, and we often discuss what we’re writing about for a few minutes to see how many of us relate or know the topic well. We’re very communicative, and we’re all involved,” Andi said.
An article about Emily and Cr*pple Magazine was recently featured in The New York Times. The up-and-coming writer has already been published in Teen Vogue, Women’s ENews, Affinity Magazine, and iGeneration Youth, where she interviewed Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy who is most known for his roles in Labor Day and as J. J. DiMeo in the television series Speechless.
Emily plans to create a print version of Cr*pple Magazine, scheduled for publication later this year. Until then, the magazine is online at cripplemagazine.com.
The magazine’s contributing writers encourage other teens living with disability to speak up about their experiences and help improve representation of their community.
“I know what it’s like to be scared to share, but I promise, it’s worth it,” Isaiah said. “Plus, disabled creatives are still desperately needed.”
“It’s really, really important that you use your voice. And especially in this age because it makes your message so much more vulnerable and clear,” Emily said.