Roger Ebert encouraged many people with disabilities and radically changed the negative perception of what it means to be disabled. He did all that just by being himself.
Shortly after cancer surgery took away part of his jaw and his ability to speak, eat or drink, Ebert wrote a piece called "I'm Not a Pretty-Boy Anymore." He wrote:
"I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what?... I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks... We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an assumption that I must always look the same... Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while you're sick."
Ebert continued writing and speaking about his disability and appearing in public regularly even though his appearance had changed drastically and he spoke by using a computer with a voice. I found this to be very heartening because I could not remember a famous person who wore their new disability so well. Others usually either completely withdrew from the spotlight, like Richard Pryor, or used their disabilities as a pulpit to preach for a cure, like Christopher Reeve.
Both of these reactions add credence the ridiculous stigma of shame that is attached to disability. They deliver the subliminal message that the disability has transformed the person into something less than they once were.
Too many people with disabilities internalize this shame. They see themselves as ugly or unworthy or incompetent. They consider all the rejection they experience to be their own fault for not being able to measure up.
Ebert thumbed his nose at these false notions of beauty and perfection by refusing to hide or reject the person he had become. He didn't gloss over the pain and sadness he felt. But he also made it clear that he still enjoyed many aspects of his life.
This was a simple act of proud defiance. But it was extremely significant. I hope it continues to convince disabled people to be proud of who they are and to demand to be respected, valued and included.
Mike Ervin is a longtime freelance writer for The Progressive and an activist with ADAPT.