Monsters in the Closet: Facing Fears of Inaccessibility

Black and white illustration of a young child with long dark hair in a dress covering up their face as the mouth of a VERY large generic monster with sharp teeth tries to eat them.

The portrayal of disability in horror films is often very problematic—think of mental illnesses such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in the 2016 movie “Split.” Yet, horror movies hold a special allure to me. This could be because my mother has always been opposed to horror, gore, and movie violence in any form—except for distinct comedic effect. However, I think horror movies can hold a certain allure for disabled viewers due to their relatability. Being disabled can be incredibly anxiety-inducing. I find myself constantly in a state of what-if when dealing with aspects of my disability in an inaccessible world:

“What if TSA confiscates my medication? What if the environment there drives me to sensory overload and there’s no way to leave? What if I don’t “look” disabled enough to receive the accommodations I asked for?”

Horror movies often portray disabled people as the horror, but the true horror is the inaccessible world. I remember I hated tag, the default game of every elementary schooler, because I was always caught first. Years later, when watching horror movies I remembered the fear of being the farthest behind like the characters being picked off first by the monster.

In a haunted house horror, the family is tormented by fears and horrors while inside the house; outside of it, their anxiety over what lies inside tends to devour their lives. As long as the environment around us remains inaccessible, people with disabilities are constantly stuck inside the haunted house. Assuming that our home environments are accessible to us, that consolation can be our one reprieve. However, not everyone is that lucky.

Recently, one of my what-if scenarios happened. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve done everything I can to prevent getting COVID-19. I have asthma and a history of lung disease. For many disabled people with similar concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic elicits a seemingly never-ending fear: what if I get COVID? Although vaccinations and new antiviral medications tampered these fears, the reality of a positive COVID test was still a shock.

By December of 2022, I’d made it through almost two full years of negative results. Each time my reactive airway and lungs flared up at an everyday cold, I’d take a test only to be negative. At this point, I did not expect to test positive, yet that second pink line appeared thick and clear. It was undeniable. Although I coughed and wheezed and my chest tightened, ultimately I didn’t need to be hospitalized. This was a feat I owe to vaccinations and modern medicine.

The real horror movie began after COVID, when suddenly my asthma was significantly worse. My pulse oximeter showed my oxygen levels dropping regularly to low 90s, a never-ending cough developed, and I was overtaken by a level of fatigue that I’d never experienced before.

Again, the horror for me was not my symptoms but the inaccessibility I encountered in everyday situations. The steep stairs to my apartment became the equivalent of a long, dark hallway from a suspenseful horror film. I started using a cane to combat the fatigue so that I could make it through my work day. My slow pace and inability to run created an even tighter time crunch, worsened by my ADHD. Everyday household tasks, such as laundry, became impossible as I no longer had the energy or strength to haul it to the laundromat without bending into a coughing fit or asthma attack.

Eventually, I was prescribed cough medicine and a new inhaler that managed to restore my asthma to a controlled state after a few more weeks. However, my asthma did not disappear and COVID-19 lingers.

A coping method I’ve been taught for anxiety  is to play out a worse-case scenario. This way you see that even the worst situation your anxiety can throw at you is not world-ending. One therapist explained it to me as “…seeing monsters in the closet makes them less scary. It’s the idea of the unknown that is the most terrifying.” I played out my COVID-19 scenario in real time and, despite the real struggles I faced dealing with the aftermath of the virus, I found ways to accommodate myself, even when facing inaccessibility.

Horror movies push monsters out of the closet. Most horror movies, especially the haunted-house subgenre, end in a tense resolution of the protagonists leaving the haunted area, often with the monster lingering in the background. In “The Shining,” the mother and son manage to get away unharmed, but Jack is left at the hotel, mad and murderous. The threat of fear lingers on, just as the threat of inaccessibility never fully dissipates.

People can develop a disability at any point in their life, even people who already label themselves disabled have fluctuating support needs. These are all themes that linger in the back of horror, often cloaked in offensive stereotypes. I often wonder what horror stories and movies written by disabled people could look like. How would we portray the everyday horrors of inaccessibility? Inspiration porn pities us and stereotypical horror films label us monsters.

However, we are just as human as any nondisabled characters, with flaws and triumphs that make us neither distinctly hero nor villain. Let’s take possession of the real monsters—the world’s accessibility barriers—and bring them out into the harsh daylight alongside the ghosts and demons on television.

Fifer Charlie Loftus (they/he), who goes by Charlie, is a queer disabled writer who lives in New York. He works in a library and enjoys reading, writing, and playing board games in his free time.

This Isn’t A Cane, It’s A Weapon: Ageism, Ableism, and Grace and Frankie

Two older white women, characters Grace and Frankie, sitting outdoors in separate patio chairs while holding hands and gazing at each other.

One thing that always frustrated me was when elders would compare my disability to theirs. At first, I brushed off my frustration as reactions to their sometimes ableist and adultist comments. A common assumption I frequently confront is “You’re too young to need that [fill in the blank].” However, I’ve come to realize that my frustration is partially due to my own bias—specifically the prevalence of ageism against our elders.

Being compared to disabled elders bothered me because I didn’t want to be seen as old. My grandmother comparing her medication to mine irked me in the same way a teenager is horrified when compared to their parents; in both cases, one is potentially viewing their future. It was only through distancing myself from the situation that I started to see the true reason for my discomfort.

Several weeks ago, between graduating from college and starting a full-time job, I binge-watched Grace and Frankie on Netflix. It was recommended by multiple people over the years, but I’d never been able to dive into it in the way that I had other sitcoms. There are, of course, some beyond problematic parts: the cast is mostly white and Frankie is constantly engaging in cultural appropriation (stolen mostly from Native cultures). However, there is also a deep and important story of two aging women coming to terms with their own disabilities.

Although the term “disability” is rarely (if ever) acknowledged, ableism—like ageism—is a prominent feature in the show. Grace and Frankie collaborate on inventions, such as a vibrator for older women with arthritis. Later, they create a toilet that helps lift you into a standing position. There’s even a scene where an elder male character returns to his home after a heart attack (and major surgery) to find an “ugly chair” in his living room. He grimaces and argues with his children about the chair’s placement. They insist it is necessary as an assistive device. The chair helps him stand without exerting himself. However, he is a stylish man who prides himself on his presentation to the world. He struggles to see past the ugliness of it.

This echoes much of what I’ve heard from people in the disabled community about accessible devices, clothing, and furniture. Although these devices may serve their functional use, they are ugly, clunky, and cumbersome. They do not allow disabled people to choose their own individual presentation. So much of the disabled experience is having your autonomy, uniqueness, and style taken from you. This is an experience often shared with elders (and those who experience adultism) as well. The ability to participate in fashion or decorate one’s living space—not just for function but for beautification—is deeply significant.

Like disabled people, elders’ desires are often considered trivial, something that gets in the way of their care or medical needs. However, many of these desires are simple enough to fulfill without much trouble and can help validate a person’s autonomy. This show was a true testament to the struggle of coming to terms with disability and aging. It also opened my eyes to the connections between disability and ageism and how my own biases have impacted my view of disabled elders.

I work in a public library. One evening, I listened to a group of older women waiting for a program to start. At first, they were gossiping amongst themselves, something I’d heard my grandmother do hundreds of times with her bridge friends. They whisper-shouted about who had died, who had been moved into a retirement home, and whose grandkids were the envy of them all. After a couple of minutes, one woman piped up. She complained of the people around her (family and strangers) treating her like children are treated. “I’m an adult!” she exclaimed, huffing in frustration.

I’d rarely pondered disabled elders’ struggles with infantilization, a residual manifestation of adultism. I’d seen it play out in my own grandparents’ reactions when they felt my parents were “treating [them like children].” I’d never thought of it as the same experience that I, and many other younger disabled people, endure. However, it is the same core problem. People see me as immature because my height leads them to make assumptions about me and my capabilities; similarly, they make assumptions about my grandparents’ needs and abilities when they see their cane or walker.

Ageism and ableism go hand in hand. While not guaranteed, the longer one lives the more likely one is to develop a disability. A lack of sufficient services for our elders leads to a greater loss of autonomy, which often means placement in nursing homes. While this option may be necessary for some, for others it can feel premature and confining. Grace and Frankie touches on this topic as well, in an episode where a friend with mid-stage dementia is moved to a retirement home. They see that this is the best option for her; she seems well-cared for and they can still visit. However, when they are later moved to the same retirement home (at their children’s insistence), they are horrified at their loss of autonomy; they lose access to many of the activities that drive them.

Lack of available resources and services is a problem for all disabled people—especially those that need high support care. The needs of the disabled community are also the needs of many elders. If we can come together to push for change in available services and access needs, we will be stronger. Ageism is a barrier to disability justice and disability rights. Until we all confront our ageism (among other things), internal and external, ableism will continue to run rampant.

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