Headlines about Lady Gaga's wheelchair missed a more nuanced debate

Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods lives in Minneapolis and is a writer, blogger and mother.
Courtesy Haddayr Copley-Woods

Consider the mermaid.

In water, she is graceful -- powerful. Fast. Sexy.

On land? She is nearly immobilized. Helpless, dependent. Definitely not sexy.

Unless she uses a wheelchair. In a wheelchair, she can be graceful again. Independent. Dare I say fluid?

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So who thinks Lady Gaga shouldn't use a wheelchair when playing a mermaid character, as she recently did in Australia?

According to several news outlets, disabled people don't: "Lady Gaga upsets activists," "Advocacy group blasts Lady Gaga," and "Lady Gaga outrages disabled groups."

In reality, these stories pointed to one cranky tweet and a very brief statement by two disabled guys -- both of whom work for organizations focused on finding a cure for their conditions. This is an extremely specific subset of the disability community, and they certainly weren't "blasting" anyone. And yet these media outlets presented us disabled people as one unified, perpetually outraged front -- a swarming mass of angry, easily offended weirdoes.

In truth, the discussion among disabled people online is as far ranging as you would expect from a group of very different people who reached disability from very different directions. Please remember that some people are born with impairments. Some acquire them in adulthood. And the nature of our impairments are all kinds of different. This is naturally going to color our outlooks as much as our political affiliations (which are also different) or our families of origin do.

I think that a mermaid using a wheelchair is the best practical choice, and others agree with me. To me, my wheelchair is a wonderful tool that has nothing but positive connotations, and I embrace the idea that there are a wide variety of reasons a person might need to use one.

I myself like to use the mermaid as a way to explain the difference between the medical model of disability, which boils down to: "You are broken and we must fix you;" and the social model of disability, which -- for physical disability -- can be summed up as: "The world is not set up for people who move like you. Let's get you good equipment and good infrastructure so as to guarantee equal access."

There is nothing wrong with the mermaid; she does not need her tail chopped in half followed by endless years of physical therapy. She just needs the right tools and infrastructure to get around on land.

Others whom I respect enormously in the online disability community disagree with me. They feel her use of a wheelchair onstage was exploitive, done for shock appeal, wrong, offensive.

Many people describe their chairs as extensions of their bodies -- as symbols of their identity that Lady Gaga has no right to appropriate. The men quoted in the initial news pieces felt she should be more focused on curing paralysis than on using a wheelchair as part of a character.

I think we all have points, even as we disagree. Our online discussions are nuanced, complex, and don't make an easy, quick "scandal" story. But the truth is so much more interesting than the headlines. Why not report the discussion? Why not turn what may really have been just a cynical grab for attention (or a simple practical decision) into a chance to have a real, thoughtful discussion on disability issues, on art, on dignity and identity?


Haddayr Copley-Woods, Minneapolis, is a copywriter, blogger and mother. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.