How ‘Queer Eye’ is Showing the Disability Community that We Can Have Function AND Fashion at Home

updated Jul 26, 2019
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Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

There are two things I’m particularly passionate about: positive disability representation in popular culture and stylish accessible design. So when I first heard that the fourth season of Netflix’s “Queer Eye” would feature a hero (what the show calls the featured subjects) with a disability, I was instantly excited and nervous. So infrequently does film and TV get things right when addressing disability issues that I couldn’t help but worry that a show which had felt mostly like a happy safe space in previous seasons might let me down like so many attempts before it. 

In episode two of the newest season, we meet Wesley, a young African American father who was paralyzed seven years ago in an act of gun violence. While he lives with his daughter, his mother is a huge support in his life, filling in the gaps where barriers in his environment keep him from achieving full independence. 

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

During the “ambush,” the Fab Five explore his house in the typical “Queer Eye” fashion and observe how Wes must navigate barriers in his fairly inaccessible home, like using kitchen utensils to turn on the stove. As the episode goes on, we see him shopping for clothes, having a grooming session, navigating a grocery store, and cooking a meal. We also get a hint that interior design guru Bobby Berk is about to outdo himself and get things very right.

“His home was not built for somebody who uses a chair,” Bobby tells the camera. “I want to make sure that Wesley’s entire home is comfortable and works for him.”

Since the episode aired, the disability community has lit up with opinions on the episode and every interaction therein. 

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

Wes proclaims multiple times during the episode that acquiring his disability is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He talks about the pride that he has, that he tries to instill in other disabled people through an organization that he founded, Disabled, But Not Really. This is where opinions divide.

The mentality behind the idea of “disabled but not really” seems to reject a label that is still heavily stigmatized. It’s a label that disabled activists have fought hard to reclaim, see pride in, and have other people recognize in that same way. Rejecting the label of “disabled” is something that disabled people have been applauded for forever, by non-disabled people who still believe that “normality” is something we should all aspire to. 

But Wes’ relationship with his disability is his own. The issue, like the episode itself, is nuanced, and while many people have felt hurt by the unchallenged ableism, there are many ways in which the show demonstrates throughout the episode that disability is valid. Wes is already empowered in his identity as a disabled man, and it’s not for anyone else to police the way in which he expresses that. 

As a white woman who has lived with disability since birth, I can acknowledge there are cultural nuances—gendered nuances, the nuance of an acquired disability—which have influenced the name Wes gave his foundation, that I can’t understand. Wes is learning and so is everyone else. 

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

As a wheelchair user and a homeowner though, the design elements of the show give me something to celebrate. When we watch the Fab Five reveal Wes’ renovated home at the end of the episode, we see the impact that the newly accessible spaces will have on his day-to-day life.

Since moving into my apartment a year and a half ago, I have had to wade through the masses of clinical, sterile options in accessibility features. I know from experience how difficult it can be to adapt a space without sacrificing style. But “Queer Eye” boldly shows us that we can have things that are beautiful, too. Clothes and objects and spaces that take accessible design and make it desirable, not a compromise.

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

There is still “practical” accessibility in the makeover, like the way they move the washer and dryer to the living room from the basement, where Wes was previously unable to access it.

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

In the kitchen, the angled wooden panel under the counter leaves enough space for a wheelchair user to position themselves at the bench top, but it doesn’t look stark or empty or like wasted space, which is often the case in accessible kitchens. The lowered microwave and lack of overhead storage are all things that aren’t new concepts in wheelchair accessible kitchens, but they’re delivered in a modernistic, upscale way that makes these choices seem considered and deliberate, rather than an only option—even if it is one.

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

We also see in the kitchen that technology and design that already exists for mainstream consumption can have accessible applications—like the induction cooktop that won’t burn Wes’ arm, should he accidentally lean while reaching past it.

The subtlety of the angled bathroom mirror (tilted down, so Wes could see himself better while at the vanity) was inspired and resonated with me specifically, as I can’t currently see myself in my own bathroom mirror—yet another compromise I had resigned myself to before Bobby Berk and his team delivered the gorgeous makeover (and giving me my next home improvement project). 

Credit: Christopher Smith/Netflix

Seeing accessibility woven so seamlessly into sexy, contemporary interior design on a platform like this one is something I had craved for so long.

The only problem is now that I’ve seen one super stylish accessible makeover, I’m hungry for more. Hey Netflix, can I borrow Bobby for a collaborative side project?

Belle Owen is a disability advocate and project manager based in Adelaide, Australia.  Her passion for equality and accessibility has taken her across the globe, in roles from fashion to nonprofits.  Belle is a lover of the yeehaw agenda, 1970s aesthetics, vegan cooking, and wholesome friendships. She is on Instagram and Twitter @bellavenom.