It’s never okay to dress up as someone with a disability for Halloween
by Sarah Kim
What do you plan on dressing up as for Halloween? Some of the most common costumes are typically, ghosts, zombies and witches because Halloween is often a time to dress up as things that scare us the most.
What things scare us the most—if horror movies are anything to go by? Well, death, pain, dismemberment, disfigurement, and erratic behavior might start the list.
We often see people dressing up as disabled people for Halloween, using wheelchairs as accessories and perpetuating a longstanding stereotype that disability is innately scary and evil. The mortification and villainization of disability go back to biblical times, when acquiring a disability was seen as punishment for personal or ancestral sin. Since most cultures were founded fundamentally on religion, this notion has long become ingrained in our society. Early Puritans also believed disabled people were innately driven toward evil. People with disabilities were—and still are—seen as having moral decay. But this Halloween, it is imperative to remember that people with disabilities are not innately evil or immoral, and disability is not a costume.
Why Disability is not a Halloween costume
Oftentimes, acquiring a disability is a result of an incredibly traumatic experience. It is not appropriate to trigger individuals who have experienced trauma merely for the sake of lighthearted fun.
On Halloween, people seem to be slower in recognizing that my speech, gait, and wheelchair are indicators of my cerebral palsy. In other words, I suspect they think I am faking it for the day. I have been asked if I really need my wheelchair or if it is part of a costume, because people see it as commonplace to use visual indicators of disability as a costume.
My experience seems like a modified version of something called fake claiming. This is when people accuse people with disabilities of faking it. In the linked article, Atty Altay, who is neurodivergent, is told by a woman in a bathroom that she is lazy and sickening for using the accessible stall. The accuser may have been motivated by a desire to defend resources meant for disabled people, but she was limited by her ideas about apparent disabilities. The author used a catheter, which isn’t visible in most circumstances, but is a valid reason to use that resource.
It is important to change the narrative that underlies the use of disability as a costume. When we buy fake scars, burn marks, and anorexia costumes costumes from Halloween stores, we affirm that it is okay to mock people with disabilities and appropriate their experiences for a day without doing anything to alleviate their structural discrimination.
I say structural discrimination because oftentimes, what counts as a disability depends on the waysociety has built accommodations for how a person’s body shows up in the world. For instance, in a world where all entrances were made to be four feet tall, everyone taller than this would be unable to enter buildings and would need special accommodations. Being taller than four feet would be a disability in such a world. In our world, not only do disabled people need accommodations, but we have to fight for them, and in many cases, pay for the equipment, assistance, and supplies we need to adapt to these inequitable conditions, adding up to a large cost that nondisabled people do not have to pay, and that most disabled people can’t afford. So when you go to a thrift store (many of which are known for paying subminimum wage to disabled employees) and purchase a walker or a wheelchair to complete your costume, not only is it appropriation, but it actively takes away an already limited resource from someone who needs it.
When we mock people with disabilities, we ignore the fact that anyone can become disabled and that it is the largest minority group in the world. We designate and perpetuate the trope that being different is scary. A study found that people with disabilities are significantly more likely to see people like them portrayed as villains than as heroes or love interests. Think of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. How much fear around mental illness have these portrayals caused?
Reinforcing the idea that disability is scary can lead to cases like Kirby Evans’, where a 65-year-old cancer survivor was roughly told to leave a gas station because his face was disfigured. He had lost his eye and nose due to basal cell carcinoma.
The store owner told him that he could not eat there if he did not cover his face. Evans could not use an eye patch because the fabric would rub his skin raw. Evans also could not afford facial reconstructive surgery and he cried as he left the station.
Disability must be a part of the inclusion discussion
Wearing a costume is meant to be a harmless act of self-expression. But I think we should stop and ask ourselves what we’re expressing when wearing fake burn marks. Perhaps we are trying to confidently demonstrate our lack of fear in the face of death and danger. There are, of course, other ways to do this, whether that means choosing a more appropriate scary costume, or finding meaningful ways to protest, figuring out how you can make a difference in the truly terrifying structural and material realities that disabled people face every day.
As a society, we should be wary of whatever causes us laughter. Laughter is not a very reflective state. We are carried by a wave of primal excitement and can end up being part of something like a minstrel show where what we laugh at is the discrimination that we are complicit in.
In the overall conversation about diversity and inclusion in society, disability is often left out. And this is why disability as a Halloween costume persists. Similarly to how it is offensive to appropriate another person’s culture or identity in a costume by donning blackface or a Native American headdress, wearing a disability costume for fun is just as offensive and demeaning. Disability deserves a seat in the discussion about equality and inclusion and we must recognize the intersectional identities that many disabled people have.
Halloween is also an occasion that involves children. Disability inclusion is still yet to be included in primary school curricula worldwide. So, if mainstream schoolchildren’s exposure to disability revolves only around fear or humiliation, when and how can we expect them to have accurate conceptions of disability?
Luckily, there are people who are committed to changing this demeaning practice. Since the dawn of social media, disability activists and allies alike have been reminding people on social media that #DisabilityIsNotACostume and #DisabilityIsNotScary—not just during this season but also every other day of the year. Amplify these messages, and when you see people you know wearing offensive, appropriative costumes, taking the time to let them know why that choice is harmful can help to make Halloween an occasion that everyone can enjoy.
Sarah Kim is a Freelance Writer for WID.