How To Be Disabled, According to Stock Photography

All images via Shutterstock

I have to take this moment to apologize. It turns out, dear readers, that I’ve been leading you astray. I thought I had this whole “being disabled” thing figured out — y’know, focusing on intersectionality, various forms of ableism, or political engagement — but nope! My mistake! Apparently I’ve been doing it wrong since birth and need to completely overhaul my approach. And who do I have to thank for such an urgent epiphany? The wide, wise world of Shutterstock.

Stock photos have taught us so much around here: what lesbian sex really looks like (twice over), the finer points of kink, even the true meaning of Christmas. I deeply regret waiting until now to explore their take on the disabled experience. Because my friends, what I’ve discovered therein is life-changing. Forget everything else I’ve ever told you and invest in these eleven principles immediately.

Here’s how to be disabled — the stock photo way.


1. Use a (manual) wheelchair.

How else will anyone know? Other mobility aids don’t really count — do you see them on parking spaces and bathroom signs? Yeah, didn’t think so. If you want people to believe that you’re disabled, you have to prove it to them in a familiar, comfortable way. Then they’ll know how much misguided guilt to project onto you, what to assume about your self-esteem, which questions are okay to ask (spoiler: doesn’t matter, they’ll ask anyway), and exactly how often to ponder the intricacies of your sex life.

Two photos side by side. On the left, a white woman with dark brown hair in a light blue shirt and sitting in a black manual wheelchair smiles into the camera while typing on a laptop computer. On the right, a different white woman in blue jeans and a short sleeved red plaid shirt over a gray top holds the wheels of her manual wheelchair. There is a laptop on her lap and she has white headphones over her ears.

All disabled people also get laptops

Invisible disabilities are useless in stock photos and particularly cruel to your audience. Could you imagine if they knew that disabled people are everywhere, all the time, even if they don’t realize it? And that supporting us involves more than installing ramps or calling Trump out on being a big bad meanie? The world would cease to turn! Nondisabled people can’t be bothered with that sort of critical thinking. So keep it simple and stick with the tried and true. There are a couple of exceptions — namely, white canes for blind folks and prosthetics for athletes or veterans — but otherwise, get yourself a chair that looks like it came straight out of a hospital in 1972.


2. And joyfully abandon it ASAP.

Because then you give the people what they really want: disability overcome. The joy is key here. You can’t just get out of your chair with no reaction or imply that you only use it sometimes (because anyone who does that is faking, obviously). It needs to be a climactic moment of victory, preferably your greatest achievement to date. No one wants to watch you integrate your disability into your sense of self. They need high drama, profound personal struggle, unrivaled bravery, and eventual liberation so they can keep assuming that being disabled sucks.

In silhouette against a sunset background, a person drops to their knees on a small hilltop and raises their arms out wide. Their manual wheelchair sits empty at the bottom of the hill.

Photo description: “Experience happiness on a hilltop at sunset”

A woman with short brown hair in a blue short sleeved shirt and khaki pants leaps out of a manual wheelchair with her arms up in the air. There is a large pond in the background.

Oh nothing, just flinging myself into this pond


3. Alternately, stay out of the photo.

Search “disability” on any stock photo website (we use Shutterstock) and you can go pages without seeing an actual human person. Because at the end of the day, the chair gets the job done on its own. It’ll stir up all that familiar pity, unease, and confusion without having to acknowledge the fact that one billion people worldwide are disabled and therefore disability can’t actually be or mean the same things for everyone. Efficient!

Frame the chair different ways to elicit your desired reaction. Might I suggest Vaguely Foreboding…

An out of focus manual wheelchair with a blue seat.

Very “true crime montage”

Deeply Contemplative…

A black manual wheelchair sits facing a large window, with light streaming in over the chair from outside.

If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know
How far I’ll go

Suspiciously Placed…

A manual wheelchair with a yellow frame, black seat, and gray tires sits unoccupied on a dock next to the water. Three pairs of shoes sit next to the chair. There are no people in the photo, only a boat in the background.

I have some concerns

Or Anthropomorphized.

Animated rendering of two black and silver manual wheelchairs, with a heart in between them to symbolize love.

I hope these two have a long and happy life together


4. Embrace headlessness.

If you insist on taking up space, at least let the photographer crop your face out of the frame. Remember that you are literally not a whole person.

A woman's feet walking along a sidewalk. She has a white cane out in front of her. You can only see her black shoes, part of her calves, and the tip of the cane.

Disabled people: earning 36% less on the job, taking up 80% less room in photos

A woman sits in a manual wheelchair holding a tablet computer. She is wearing blue jeans and a pink scarf and has long red nails. The photo only shows her from the neck down, no head.

This nails/wheels combo seems questionable

Front-facing view of a woman's legs in a manual wheelchair. She is wearing black stonewashed jeans and black boots, and is in a room with a dark wooden floor. You can only see her legs in the chair, no head or torso.

Disease disability paralysis handicap health concept
Legs of disabled person
Crippled female sitting on wheelchair
— A stock photo poem


5. Gaze out the window or exist in silhouette as often as possible.

Lighting counts! Remember your angles! Both of these poses suggest you are grappling with the meaning of life, which simultaneously makes you very profound and allows nondisabled people to feel So Inspired. If they’re not tearing up, you’re doing it wrong and should really care more about their opinions.

Two photos side by side. On the left, a young woman with long brown hair sits in a manual wheelchair looking out a sliding glass window into the sunshine. On the right, a different woman in a manual chair and wearing a purple sweater sits looking through a very large window that has white light streaming through.

Fun fact: all disabled people are perpetually bathed in white light to emphasize our eternal innocence and purity

In silhouette against a sunset background, a man reaches out to take the hands of a woman in a manual wheelchair.

“Really, I’m okay, sir”
“Let me just —”
“SIR”


6. Raise your arms in triumph when outdoors.

This is the International Disability Feel-Good Signal and able-bodied people LOVE IT. Systemic underemployment? Precarious healthcare? A Presidential administration that insists we’ll be fine as long as we’re, y’know, not too disabled, or queer, or trans, or immigrants, or women? Who cares! Head on out to the beach/meadow/mountaintop and get those hands up high. Ain’t life grand?

View from behind of a woman raising her arms over her head while sitting in a manual wheelchair on the beach. She is wearing a straw hat with a wide brim, and you can see the ocean in the background.

Might she be waving for help? Have we thought about that?

A woman in blue jean capris and a yellow sleeveless top raises her arms over her head while sitting in a red manual wheelchair in the middle of a meadow.

Repurposed outtake from a tampon commercial

In silhouette against a sunset background, a person in a manual wheelchair raises their arms above their head on a mountaintop.

“Seriously I’m stuck please get me down”


7. Be interchangeable.

No one’s gonna notice, right?

Two photos side by side. On the left, a white blonde woman is standing behind a brunette white man who's sitting in a manual wheelchair. Both are wearing blue jeans; she has a sleeveless white shirt on and he has a grey t-shirt. The right photo is of the same people with their positions switched; now he is standing and she is in the chair.

Hmmm

Whoopsie daisy. Whatever.

A white man with short brown hair in blue jeans and a gray t-shirt smiles at a blonde woman in a manual wheelchair as he tips her chair backwards from behind.

“He didn’t ask about this but it’s fine”


8. Seek divine healing.

Remember: God made you disabled because “He knew you could handle it,” but can also instantly reverse that decision if you pray hard enough. This isn’t confusing at all and you need to just accept it so we can move on with our lives.

Rear view of a woman in a long white skirt and top standing in a meadow next to an empty manual wheelchair, with her arms raised toward a dark sky. A cross can be seen through the clouds and is bathing her in a beam of light.

Stock photos are really such a subtle medium

In silhouette against a sunset background, a woman raises her arms towards the sky and holds a book in one hand. A manual wheelchair sits unoccupied toward the back of the frame.

“Miracle spiritual healing crippled woman praying with Bible stands up out of wheelchair and walks.” You thought she was just reading Freedom is a Constant Struggle during a nice beach vacation? Stock photos know better.


9. In the workplace, make sure you’ve got at least one able-bodied white guy with you at all times.

They will provide the “objectivity,” “business sense,” and “decisiveness” you otherwise lack — and can also explain why your requested accommodation is “just going to put too much strain on our budget this year.”

A young white man and woman, both with brown hair, sit on opposite sides of a wooden desk. The woman is in a manual wheelchair wearing a black skirt and a sleeveless white top. The man is in a light blue dress shirt and dark blue tie. There are binders and papers on the table between them.

“So as you can see from our floor plan, it’s completely reasonable to have you crawl down the stairs in an emergency”

A woman with reddish brown hair in a white short-sleeved blouse looks at a laptop computer screen while two men, one older and one younger, stand behind her. The older man is pointing at something on the screen while the younger one is taking notes. The woman is sitting in a manual wheelchair.

Bonus points if you can get more than one

Also, you’re only allowed to hold vaguely-defined desk jobs. Anything else (doctor, lawyer, professor, artist, U.S. Senator) is unrealistic, really.


10. Related: Be white.

Unless you are also a cartoon man.

Cartoon rendering of a gay male couple with a baby. One man is black and the other is white; the black man is in a manual wheelchair and has the baby on his lap. The baby is holding a balloon. The white man has brown hair and glasses and is extending one hand toward the baby.

Of course disabled people of color — let alone gay ones — don’t exist in real life, that’s silly


11. And remember to always ask the right questions about your sexuality.

Just kidding, there’s only one question:

Three rows of variations on the same photo: a man's hand reaching out against various backgrounds toward the text "Am I Normal?"

Search “disabled sexuality”
Am I Normals: 115
Disabled People in Sexual Situations: 0

And I think you know the answer.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to experience happiness on a hilltop at sunset.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

Carrie has written 56 articles for us.

44 Comments

    • 1

      Hospital-style: totally reasonable for everyday use! These stock photos are probably why my partner’s insurance company told him they’d only cover that kind of chair instead of, oh, I dunno, something usable when you’re relying on it to get around everywhere all the time.

  1. 0

    Wow I really am doing this disabled thing ALL WRONG. Well, not all wrong I guess. I do spend a disproportionate amount of time in nature with my hands up (though it’s usually a fist pump of victory after running a waterfall, or occasionally a frantic handwaving of HEY OVER HERE either to people or to my dog who is very hard of hearing and is losing her vision so sometimes she’ll lose me in the woods and that freaks both of us out and absurdly large full body motions are some of the only things she can see so she knows where I am.)

    I’m a little surprised that there weren’t stock photos people with absurdly full pill boxes or hands with pills because that’s The Thing with chronic illnesses. Or maybe that’s just because that’s like 30% of what my sister and I snapchat back an forth are our pillboxes and pills.

  2. 0

    Oh, come on! How could you be SO wrong?? The second photo in #2 is CLEARLY the end of sequence in which the gentleman (from what I can see) was madly rolling down a hill before someone grabbed the wheelchair, stopping it suddenly and throwing the rider into the air. The picture is obviously taken just as the miscreant who stopped the wheelchair hurled themselves backwards out of the frame.

  3. 1

    i love this piece so much. i made some descriptive captions for the photos so more folks can actually get a sense of what’s being shown here. Feel free to use or adapt them:
    1. “All disabled people also get laptops.” A slender light skinned person with long brown hair and blue jeans and shirt sits in a manual wheelchair at a desk typing on a laptop, smiling big to the camera in a bright room.

    2. “All disabled people also get laptops.” A slender light skinned person with brown hair and blue jeans and plaid short sleeved shirt sits in a manual wheelchair with a laptop in their lap, wearing headphones, looking to the side, both hands on wheels.

    3. “Photo description: ‘Experience happiness on a hilltop at sunset.'” The scene is a colourful bright sunset over water. In silhouette is a wheelchair at the bottom of a small hill where a person is kneeling, both arms outstretched, with the sunset’s beams sort of radiating like it’s coming from the person.

    4. “Oh nothing, just flinging myself into this pond”. A bright park and pond scene. there’s a manual wheelchair parked on a gravel path facing the water. a light skinned person is seen from behind, leaping wildly forwards, legs splayed, one arm flung backwards, the other up towards the sky

    5. “Very “true crime montage”. Image of a manual wheelchair, from a bit above, like someone looking down on it; the chair is out of focus and the colours are… creepy and ominous feeling.

    6. “If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me/ One day i’ll know/ How far i’ll go”. A manual wheelchair from behind, slightly ankew, “looking” out a bright sun-drenched window of a modern home.

    7. “I have some concerns.” A sporty manual wheelchair is parked on a pier leading to boats. There are several pairs of shoes sitting there.

    8. “I hope these two have a long and happy life together.” Computer generated image of two manual wheelchairs slightly facing each other. The background is a blue and pink sky, and there’s a giant red heart between them.

    9. “Disabled people: earning 36% less on the job, taking up 80% less room in photos”. A person’s light skinned legs stand on a street, in heels, half of a white cane runs over tactile warning strip on the sidewalk.

    10. “This nails/wheels combo seems questionable”. A light skinned person (cut off from the chest up and the calves down) wearing jeans, black shirt, colourful scarf sits in a manual wheelchair. One long red nailed hand holds a laptop (again!), the other hand is resting on the wheel.

    11. “Disease disability paralysis handicap health concept / Legs of disabled person / Crippled female sitting on wheelchair — A stock photo poem”. Hardwood floor with black background, sort of conjuring either an arty feel or high school photo day feel. Person sitting in a manual wheelchair, hands in lap, wearing a black top, black/grey acid wash jeans, vlack leather boots. They are cut off from basically their navel up.

    12. “Fun fact: all disabled people are perpetually bathed in white light to emphasize our eternal innocence and purity”. A. A light skinned person with long brown hair sits in the wheelchair scene from #6 [i.e. A manual wheelchair from behind, slightly ankew, “looking” out a bright sun-drenched window of a modern home.] B. a light skinned person with long hair sits in a manual wheelchair looking out a high wall of windows.

    13. “Really, I’m okay, sir” “Let me just—” “SIR”. Two figures in silhouette against a background of a brilliant sun shining through clouds. One person is sitting in a wheelchair (and also seems to have 3 arms), their arms are sort of reaching towards (or trying to get rid of?) the other person, who’s holding one of the arms. It’s very strange.

    14. “Might she be waving for help? Have we thought about that?” A person wearing a sun hat sits in a manual wheelchair on the beach (there are of course no wheel tracks anywhere to be seen), facing the ocean as waves lap. Their arms are raised in the air as if in victory.

    15. “Repurposed outtake from a tampon commercial” A meadow scene with purple and white flowers, and a huge blue sky with wispy clouds. A light skinned person in jeans and summery yellow top sits in a manual wheelchair, their arms flung up to the sky, smiling with eyes closed.

    16. “Seriously I’m stuck please get me down” A person in silhouette sits in a manual wheelchair on top of some sort of naturey hilltop. Their arms are stretched up to the sky.

    17. “Hmmm.” Two images. Two white people take turns sitting in a manual wheelchair or standing behind it. The same looks on their faces. It’s kind of creepy.

    18. [“He didn’t ask about this but it’s fine.”] The same white people in #17, this time, one person is tilting the wheelchair backwards and holding on, while the person sitting in the wheelchair smiles at the camera, slightly terrified.

    19. [“Stock photos are really such a subtle medium”] A meadow scene, with high grasses and flowers. greyish slightly ominous skies with clouds and a giant glowing cross shining through the clouds, sending sunbeams down towards a light skinned person who is standing beside a manual wheelchair, arms upstretched to the sky.

    20. [“Miracle spiritual healing crippled woman praying with Bible stands up out of wheelchair and walks” You thought she was just reading Freedom Is A Constant Struggle during a nice beach vacation? Stock photos know better.] Beach and sunset scene. A manual wheelchair faces the ocean. Maybe 20 feet away, a light skinned person stands facing the ocean, what looks like a bible in one hand, arms outstretched.

    21. [“So as you can see from our floor plan, it’s completely reasonable to have you crawl down the stairs in an emergency”] Office scene. Two light skinned people sit on either side of a table. One person with long hair and a skirt, top and heels is sitting in a manual wheelchair, looking at what looks like a layout diagram, looks kind of un-convinced. The other person, wearing a dress shirt and tie is i guess showing it to them, and seems pretty sure about it all.

    22. [“Bonus points if you can get more than one”] Bright building scene. Three lightskinned people are hovering around a laptop on a desk. They’re all wearing white office attire. One person takes notes, one person sits in a manual wheelchair, the other person is pointing at the screen and has their hand on one of the handles of the wheelchair.

    23. [“Of course disabled people of color – let alone gay ones – don’t exist in real life. That’s silly.”] Computer generated full-on cartoon image of a bearded dark skinned person using a manual wheelchair, a child sits in his lap holding a red balloon, a light skinned dude stands nearby, reaching out to the kid(?)

    24. [“Search “disabled sexuality” / Am I Normals: 115 / Disabled People In Sexual Situations: 0″] An assortment of small images with a person’s light skinned hand in front of different backgrounds, all with the question “am i normal?”

  4. 0

    Oh wow, “the chair gets the job done on its own”! If I had known I could just buy a manual wheelchair and have it stand in as my physical replacement, my life would be so much easier! And if that doesn’t work, I can always just have another white woman sit in there for me and nobody will know the difference. A++ advice.

  5. 1

    I would like to add, can that old man keep his hands off me? He is looking over the shoulder of his employee using her chair as his hand rest which as our AODA help guide says is like touching the person who is IN the chair and believe me it’s happened to me many times. Hold yourself up gravity has not changed yet.

  6. 0

    We’re tired of these sort of pictures being the only option – or sites where you have to pony up the big bucks to use real pictures.

    We’ve created a flickr group for people to share (and use) pics for free–of people with and without disabilities and other pictures from our communities. Feel free to check it out, and share pics of your own if you feel so inclined. (Have to create a free flickr account to see most of the pics, though.)

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/healthycommunityliving

  7. 0

    Rosemarie Garland-Thompson has an interesting article called “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” that might be worth checking out in relation to this article.

  8. 1

    Thanks for this, Carrie, and those image descriptions are fabulous, speaking as a screen reader user! First time I felt like I could genuinely enjoy a piece like this! Keep it up! And thank you, AS, for the steady stream of rad disability content!

  9. 0

    >I thought I had this whole “being disabled” thing figured out — y’know, focusing on intersectionality, various forms of ableism, or political engagement — but nope! My mistake!

    Er, that doesn’t strike me as the immediate concerns or activities of being disabled. Good for you if you want to do identity politics with it, but “this whole being disabled thing” to me means more mundane daily survival and tool use, not abstract political stuff (however useful in the long term).

  10. 0

    You know, i really do it wrong. I use only one crutch. It bothers people. Wheres the other one? They say? The other what? The other cruthch, dont they come in pairs? I used to explain, but now i just say really? I guess they cheated me! Also, i want my laptop.

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