I don’t watch TV, which is why I miss out on a lot of Netflix sensations. But on one idle quarantine evening, I thought I’d relax and indulge in one of these sensations as it happened: “Never Have I Ever,” the much-anticipated new show from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. I was prepared to laugh, and feel moved, maybe even learn something, and enjoy the romantic dynamics.
Instead I felt punched in the gut. Weeks later, I’m still winded.
Moments into the series premiere, the protagonist of “Never Have I Ever,” Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) ends up in a wheelchair, struck by unexplained paralysis.
Sudden paralysis is a big deal, maybe one of the biggest. There you are, with a “normal” body, and a “normal” gait, and a “normal” set of effortless abilities that you’ve never thought of as abilities—and then, in a moment, you have to reorient your life completely.
When I saw her, I had a familiar reaction reminiscent of my decade-old encounter with Artie Abrams from “Glee” (Kevin McHale): “Why can’t an actual wheelchair-user have been cast in this role?”
“Glee” never answered that question, and I didn’t have time to finish asking it before Devi’s disability was … cured. Magically.
The Magical Cure is a highly offensive trope, because it undergirds the notion that the greatest thing that can possibly happen to a person with a disability is to become “normal.” The greatest thing that can actually happen to a disabled person, though, is to be fully acknowledged as a multifaceted human being who need never feel ashamed about asking for accommodations that make life easier, or in some cases, possible.
Or, put another way, it’s incredibly arrogant to assume that the best thing that could happen to me is suddenly turning into you.
I was born with cerebral palsy, so when people ask me what happened, I get to say that nothing did: Actually, I got lucky. I was born almost three months premature and emerged from my mother blue, weighing two pounds.
What happened to me is that I survived. I walk with forearm crutches and, after a childhood operation, bear several surgical scars. But my life is full. I have an extraordinary partner, work I love, and a well-nourished passion for traveling and the outdoors. (I get looks on hiking trails, but they’re usually friendly, a welcoming kind of surprised.) Nothing is missing.
Disability is an anti-descriptive category, encompassing an array of experiences and adaptations that can’t be compared (a cognitive disability is different from a physical one, the onset of a disability is different from a congenital one, etc.).
Still, disability representation is a pretty big deal, regardless of where we do or don’t fit within that category. I remember the first time I noticed how I walk: I was a toe-walker, and in elementary school, I walked past a full-sized glass pane door, saw myself striding on the tips of my toes, and thought, “Is that me? I look so ugly.” What I meant was that I didn’t walk like any other girls I’d ever seen.
My perception of myself has transformed, but the mediascape has not. Hollywood remains convinced that visible disability can’t coexist with actual talent, so none of the conversations about race representation in superhero movies included the fact that Jack Dylan Grazier, who isn’t disabled at all, played a kid with forearm crutches in “Shazam.” (At one point the crutch is used as a weapon, which could’ve been empowering if it wasn’t someone else using the crutch on his behalf. And before you ask, yes, I’ve done this. We all work with what we’ve got!)
Still, the retrograde nature of the Magical Cure is nearly on level with the minstrel show, and I was shocked to find that Kaling and Fisher, of all people, would be the team to keep this one alive.
But Devi wasn’t cured by the typical magical tropes: There was no potion, no waking up from a nightmare, no superpowers, no alien doctor.
Devi jumped up from her wheelchair to get a better view of a hot guy.
Of course, this didn’t happen until her Asian-American drama club best friend had time to declare, “In solidarity, I’m not going to use my legs either,” and deliberately fall to the ground. Is falling funny? Is falling especially funny if a disabled woman does it? Is falling extra-extra funny if a woman who’s not disabled does it because she’s pretending to be disabled? And is being cured by a hot guy comedy gold?
I didn’t think this could get any worse, until the voiceover declared:
“With working legs comes a whole new world of possibilities.”
The proclamation that a fulfilling life is impossible if you don’t have working legs speaks to unfathomable ignorance. This from Mindy Kaling? Two women got together to come up with a TV show and cemented the most destructive assumption that every disabled person has to battle-by-existing every day?
They must be doing that for a reason, right? Disability has to return as a plot line so that the character can––
and I can’t even finish this sentence, because it didn’t. I can only pose the question to Kaling and Fisher: What was the joke here, and why?
Disability is not a comedic punchline, a tragic end or a plot twist that gets thrown away in the first act. If you’ve got one, that’s part of your life, but clearly no one in the editing room of “Never Have I Ever” editing room is underlining the “part” here. A large part of Devi’s character is her sex drive, and deleting an unnecessary disability for it to go on reinforces the destructive myth that people with disabilities don’t have sex drives, or fulfilling sex lives. We do.
Whatever you find relatable about Devi, whatever spoke to who you were as a teenager, could’ve been done with the same passion, humor and charisma by someone in a wheelchair. That this is inconceivable to Kaling and her writers’ room points to an infuriating chasm in our discussions of diverse experiences in media. We’re long overdue to widen the lens.
People with disabilities are often seen as scary by those who can’t imagine what it would be like to “end up” in our position. That fear has kept us down for too long. The little girl that I once was now knows that she’s intelligent, fierce, resourceful, and even beautiful––I don’t need representation to re-prove anything to myself.
But all of you out there who assume disability would be your worst nightmare: You could benefit from understanding that ending up “like us” is not a punishment. Well-told stories, on Netflix and other platforms, could help you get over your fear—and that will make life unimaginably better for the children to come.