Last week, Queer Eye released its fourth season on Netflix, in which the Fab Five travel to Jonathan’s hometown in Illinois and Kansas City, Missouri. One of the most hotly debated issues with the new season is the Queer Eye “Disabled But Not Really” episode, which is dividing fans on whether or not the show perpetuates an ableist view. Members of the disabled community have argued both sides on Twitter, alternately praising and critiquing the Fab Five’s approach. Some were thrilled to see a hero with a disability represented on the show and became emotional about the improvements made to his home. Others felt the core message (“disabled but not really”) was flawed from the start and that the Fab Five’s attitudes only compounded the problematic implication.
The episode features hero Wesley Hamilton, a “former bad boy” who became paralyzed from the waist down after being shot six years prior. While Hamilton suffered acutely for many years, he ultimately feels he’s been given a new lease on life. He started over as a community activist and adaptive athlete and founded the organization Disabled But Not Really to instill “a physically limitless mindset that breeds courage, confidence and competence” in people with disabilities, according to its website. Hamilton helps people with disabilities improve their physical fitness and nutrition: two areas he found invaluable to regaining a sense of confidence after losing the use of his legs.
As many viewers point out, it’s impossible for one disabled person to represent the community as a whole. But given the sad, limited state of disabled representation in movies and TV today, some members of the disabled community were still disappointed by the framing of the story the Fab Five chose to tell. Dan Freeman, a disabled writer and academic, created a popular Twitter thread on the subject, focusing largely on the internalized ableism he believed the message of “disabled but not really” represented. “This framing of disability isn’t all together surprising,” Freeman wrote. “We aren’t even three minutes in and the dominant narrative is ‘Disability is something that I’ve overcome, but other ppl still worry about it, so I try to fit into their narratives around disability.'”
This will be the throughline in this episode, I think. We aren’t even three minutes in and the dominant narrative is “Disability is something that I’ve overcome, but other ppl still worry about it, so I try to fit into their narratives around disability”.
— Dan Freeman (@DanFreem) July 19, 2019
The issue of internalized ableism struck a chord with many members of the disabled community, particularly those whose activism have focused on taking pride in one’s status as disabled, which is exemplified by the #SayTheWord, a campaign that reminds those to not erase one’s disability. Again, Hamilton can’t exactly be blamed for the attitude he takes toward his own disability. But given that this is the first disabled hero Queer Eye has chosen, many wish they had chosen someone who embraced their disability and how it made them different — instead of trying to pretend it didn’t exist.
Y’all I really want to enjoy the new season of #QueerEye coming this weekend but that trailer has me cringing. ‘Disabled but not really’ like?? Can a show that sees its self as progressive not just #SayTheWord & see that there’s pride in that identity? Please don’t mess this up.
— Belle (@bellavenom) July 16, 2019
Overall, I still feel a little cringey about the phrase. But maybe that’s my own bias? Ultimately, I just want society to recognize that the words “Disability” and “Disabled” are NOT bad. I’m disabled and proud – and Wes is too #QueerEye @schwegs14
— Annesley Clark (@AnnesleyClark) July 19, 2019
A THREAD: S4E2 of @QueerEye features their first hero w/ a disability & disappointingly the ep is full of inspiration porn & internalized ableism. This isn’t the fault of the hero (whose charity is called “Disabled But Not Really”) who became paralyzed 7 years ago
— probably on the red line (@tojustBe) July 21, 2019
I have pretty severe EDS and I can't do a lot the things Wesley's organization encourages. Hense why I think it would have been good to have someone to say say how disabled is not a bad word. It wouldn't have taken much to just have a little note at the end of the ep.
— Madi Armstrong (@YourDadIsIzzy) July 22, 2019
Problematic aspects (momentarily) aside, it’s worth noting that a large faction of viewers were deeply moved by the content of this episode, particularly seeing Bobby transform Hamilton’s house into an accessible space, and Tan tailor Hamilton’s wardrobe to mitigate wheelchair-specific concerns.
me watching this episode of Queer Eye where they made a man's whole house wheelchair-accessible AND tailored his entire wardrobe pic.twitter.com/xc2FZsh0nz
— priscilla page (@BBW_BFF) July 23, 2019
Jesus episode 2 of #QueerEye got me in the feels. As a disabled person and wheelchair user I truly hope people open their minds when watching it to the struggles we face with shopping, accessible homes, appliances and just how society see us.
— † 𝔊𝔢𝔬𝔯𝔤𝔦𝔫𝔞 † (@piercedmermaid) July 19, 2019
I will never get over Queer Eye. @bobbyberk making a man with a disability a WHOLE NEW ACCESSIBLE HOUSE?! My special ed. teacher self is sobbing.
— Julia Allspaw (@julia_allspaw) July 21, 2019
Karamo facilitated a conversation between the dude & the guy who shot him, Tan got an entire wardrobe of clothes tailored to work with his wheelchair, Jonathan helped him get his hair cut for the first time since he got shot… and Antoni showed him how to make a chicken salad
— PINKY FANG (@PINKYFANG) July 20, 2019
Others felt that Hamilton’s attitude toward his disability should be celebrated for its positivity — even if it isn’t representative of the larger community. “We’re always harping about how we should ask disabled people what they want to be called. Well, Wesley is disabled and he named his foundation “Disabled But Not Really”, and that’s how he wants to be seen,” one tweet reads. “Is everyone like that? No. But that doesn’t mean we should shame him or #QueerEye for shining on a light on him or helping him out.”
Y’all…episode 2 of the new season of Queer Eye is a BIG mood! So happy for more disabled people shown in a positive way. It makes me feel normal and that’s something we all need💖💖💖
— Theo (@geekygaymerguy) July 23, 2019
When I saw @QueerEye ep titled Disabled But Not Really I was skeptical. But I watched it anyway and: thank you. Thank you, QE, for highlighting disability and the institutional ableism that we struggle with every day. And in such a powerful episode beyond disability too. Wow.
— Premed PhD (@PreMedPhD) July 21, 2019
May be an unpopular opinion among the #disabled community, but I just watched the disabled but not really episode of #queereye and I loved it. We’re always harping about how we should ask disabled people what they want to be called. Well, Wesley is disabled and
— Jen McSpoonie (@Jentowe86) July 20, 2019
He makes me SO happy, and as a disabled person myself that episode meant the world ❤️
— Cilla (@SuperfruityPhan) July 23, 2019
Finally, other members of the disabled community pointed out that the race plays an important role in Hamilton’s story too — and should be considered when critiquing the attitude he takes toward his own disability. Social worker and activist Vilissa Thompson posted another popular Twitter thread on the topic, pointing out that many of the people most vocal about the episode lacked the appropriate context for what they chose to critique.
“We need to notice how doting of a father Wesley is to his daughter & how his daughter views him,” Thompson wrote, noting an element of the episode that has been largely overlooked. “It’s critical to observe the fatherhood of Black disabled men. Again, something you all won’t get fully.” Many on Twitter applauded Thompson’s statements and directed other Queer Eye viewers to read the opinions of black disabled people first and foremost.
Watching the Queer Eye episode with Wesley & it’s very layered.
The layers explains a lot, particularly the cultural dynamics of a Black man who admits he was living the “bad boy” life before his injury.
This is definitely out of a lot of you all’s range to discuss properly.
— Vilissa Thompson (@VilissaThompson) July 20, 2019
Now I'm awake again and this And I think this has put a glaring light on yall needing to SIT DOWN. and let black disabled people and POC Take the lead on topics about Black disabled people and POC#ChronicLoaf #FilmDis #QueerEye #QueerEye4 pic.twitter.com/ZsenkgNu23
— 💚Maelee Thee Unicorn🦄 (@Mae_DayJ) July 23, 2019
for everyone asking about my opinion of the ‘disabled but not really’ episode of queer eye it is this: i am white so it’s not my place to comment k bye✌️
— ellen (she/her) (@ellenblunsdon) July 23, 2019
Ultimately, expanding onscreen representation of any underrepresented group is bound to spark discussion like this, both from those unfamiliar with what they’re seeing and those who see themselves in the depiction. Queer Eye doesn’t bear sole responsibility for educating the masses on how to discuss disability and treat the disabled community. But given the show’s massive platform, it does seem fair to ask the Fab Five to carefully consider the implications of the episode’s message, and certainly to consult other members of the disabled community when crafting that message.
What we need, more than anything else, is to continue broadening the diversity of experiences we show onscreen. Right now, the burden remains on marginalized groups to present perfectly representative individuals and to educate the masses when existing representation leaves them frustrated. Including Hamilton’s story in this season of Queer Eye was a step in the right direction — but not a perfect one, and far from the only one we need.