what the lives of disabled teens are really like

Cripple Magazine is created by and for disabled teens -- and anyone who wants to really understand the experiences of Gen Z youth with disabilities.

by Sara Radin
17 August 2018, 7:45am

Courtesy of Cripple Magazine

Cripple Magazine, created by and for disabled teens -- and anyone who wants to really understand the similarities and differences experienced by Gen Z with disabilities.

What’s life like today for disabled teenagers? In a time where global youth activism is rising, disabled youth are still being slept on in most social commentary and community gatherings. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students ages 3 to 21 receiving special education services in the US from 2015 to 2016 was 6.7 million, or 13 percent of all public school students. Despite these statistics, there is still a massive lack of empathetic representation for today’s disabled youth.

While in the last decade or so television shows such as Glee and Speechless have attempted to illustrate the true lives of today’s disabled youth, common portrayals often paint a picture in which disabled folks are misrepresented or are seen as visual inspiration for the abled community.

"Every time I attempted to look for myself in something, all that was staring back was a widely shared video of a heartwarming friendship between a disabled little girl and an able-bodied classmate, and to be honest with you, it made me feel embarrassed, anxious and sick."

Emily Flores is one teen trying to combat this never-ending cycle of inaccurate information and patronising narration. Earlier this year, the 15-year-old, who lives in Austin, Texas, decided to launch Cripple Magazine, a platform run by young disabled creatives. Emily, a Teen Vogue contributor, has been in a wheelchair all of her life, says she is tired of the ways people shrink her identity because of her disability.

Launched in June 2018, Cripple Magazine is the first publication of its kind, placing the stories of today’s disabled youth front and centre while allowing them to use their own voices for change. The publication’s editorial staff is comprised of a team of editors, writers and artists all between 15 and 22 years old, who live with different disabilities, from invisible to physical. Some have cerebral palsy while others have mental illness and learning disabilities. Contributors hail from cities across the United States and the UK.

From articles about entertainment and pop culture to politics and news, stories are told through the lens of the disabled community: popular articles recently published include, “What Non Autistics Don’t Understand About Autism”, and “How Pride Events Still Exclude Me and My Disabled Peers”.

i-D sat down with Emily to hear how she believes we should speak about disabilities with both the disabled and abled communities, why platforms like Cripple Magazine matter, and her vision for the new publication.

What is Cripple Magazine ’s mission?
The mission of Cripple Magazine is to find, uplift and nurture the voices of the next generation of the disability community. We are an art-driven online magazine and (soon!) print magazine that works with young disabled writers and creatives who have something to say. I launched this magazine from my personal experiences, and impulsive emotions from my adolescence. Having a disability all of my life forced me to jump through even more hoops that are already set up in the teen world. A lot of the time I felt really isolated, unconnected and not represented at all in the media, beauty campaigns or anything that I was interested in. I think with the severe underrepresentation going on with disabled people and youth, it’s vital to have support and proper fostering of education for disabled kids, and what better way to do that than with the spread of the disabled youth’s voices?

What inspired you to launch this project?
At some point in a disabled person's life, we are shown or come across a series of photos that show a disabled person smiling, and with a quote that says: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”. Ever since I saw that photo displayed at my school assembly when I was in elementary school, it didn’t sit right with me. I felt uncomfortable. Because essentially, the photo was putting the blame on me and my disability, and not blaming the inaccessible world. It’s patronising, and only sends the message that there is something wrong with disabled people, and it’s their responsibility to fix it. My disability in life is not my attitude, it’s my disability.

Every time I attempted to look for myself in something, all that was staring back was a widely shared video of a heartwarming friendship between a disabled little girl and an able-bodied classmate, and to be honest with you, it made me feel embarrassed, anxious and sick. And I didn’t know why I was feeling all of those confusing emotions at the time, but I did feel them, and it was only later that I realised it was okay to feel that way.

Why is there a need for a platform like Cripple right now?
I believe that we are going through a culture and age shift in the world right now. With Gen Z growing up, and studies showing that we are the most LGBTQIA+ and racially diverse group yet, I think it’s important to start being a vocal disabled population. It’s time that our justice is included in the fights against prejudice and hate, and the many sides of ableism are understood. It’s also important, for people to start responding to the social mould of disability, and understanding the experience on a much more vulnerable level. Not in a, ‘Let me take a trip with a disabled person and see how I am changed’ type of way, but start actually learning from disabled people alongside our allies -- and I think planting that seed within Gen Z is the best place to start.

What's missing from the media when it comes to stories regarding today’s disabled youth?What’s missing is the sensitivity and response in handling the stories of disabled children. More often than not, the stories about disabled children are told by able-bodied voices who misconstrue our identities into something they’re not. In most common cases, we are turned into inspiration porn that feeds off the ideal that we only exist for able-bodied people to look to when they’re feeling unmotivated. Another common case is when an article or news clip refers to the disabled subject with the line “despite their disability”, or when it uses disability for some sort of shock value that the reader is supposed to feel after learning of the person’s accomplishments. Honesty, sensitivity and inclusion are the most important things that the media is missing when writing stories about disabled youth, because more often than not the idea of inclusion to an able-bodied person is not the same as a disabled person’s.

Are there any brands or forms of media getting it right? If so, who and what have they done right?
ABC’s comedy show Speechless has done a great job at proper representation of disabled youth. The show is centred around a teenage boy who has cerebral palsy, his family and their daily life. The main character, who has the disability, is played by an actor who has a disability as well, which makes the role so much more engaging to a disabled teen. The main character goes through plot lines such as dating, high school life and being a disabled teenager.

Who are Cripple Magazine’s contributors and how did you connect with them?
Our contributors are amazing, diverse and committed to becoming real representations for disabled youth. We have some contributors that have invisible disabilities, physical disabilities, people of colour, some who are part of the LGBT community. When looking for contributors, I sought out diverse applicants who exemplified the many intersections that disability can have. I was able to connect with them through word of mouth and social media.

What kind of content do you focus on?
We really like to focus on creating content that disabled youth are interested in and is relevant to their lives, from response pieces to our internet culture, to recommendations about the best and most accessible school pens.

How do you hope to grow the platform in the future?
I want to make it more interactive with our readers, and grow it artistically. With the development of our print issue soon, I hope to work with several disabled models, creatives and photographers to make a fashion-oriented issue that is the most authentic for disabled readers. I want to grow Cripple to be the most safe, nurturing and artistic space in which young disabled creatives can thrive.

Do you feel that disabled youth are being left out of the rising activism movement?
In some ways, I do. I think that there are a lot of sides and angles to ableism that people still don’t understand. It is important to be completely intersectional. I see so many of my disabled peers not able to get to rallies and protests because they’re inaccessible, yet they are shamed for not doing real life activism. Online activism is completely valid, and shaming it is an instance of ableism.

What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to navigate life as a disabled teen?
I wish people knew that it’s so ordinary and just like yours, but so not ordinary and not like yours.

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