Memes and dreams: How disabled creators are using social media to break stereotypes

Taylor Lindsay-Noel has accomplished a lot at the age of 30.

The award-winning entrepreneur is CEO of her own loose-leaf tea brand and cafe. Her business was endorsed by one of her personal heroes, who happens to be one of the most famous people in the world. Lindsay-Noel is also a motivational speaker, and perhaps most importantly, she’s part of a wave of disabled social media creators who are confronting stereotypes and telling their stories unfiltered for the first time.

Impressive enough for any 30-year-old. Even more impressive, considering that for half of her life, being an entrepreneur was the furthest thing from her mind.

“I always wanted to be an Olympian,” Lindsay-Noel told Global News’ current affairs program The New Reality. “Gymnastics was my entire world from age five to 14.”

Lindsay-Noel says she was on track to go to the 2012 Olympics when a training accident in 2008 left her paralyzed from the neck down. It plunged her into a whole different world of wheelchairs, rehab and a search for meaning, in what she calls her “second life.”

“I had a singular focus for so many years. And so when that was ripped away from me, I kind of lost my identity,” she says. “So ending up where I am, being a tea entrepreneur and a TikTok personality is definitely not what I thought I would do.”

In 2018, Lindsay-Noel started Cup of Té, her own brand of organic loose-leaf teas, followed by opening a cafe in Toronto.

“It was really cool and a challenge for me to create something of my own. And I wanted to see, can I do this in the body that I have with all these challenges? And I think I have surpassed my own expectations.”

It wasn’t until 2020 that she got some major validation in the form of an email from someone purporting to represent Oprah Winfrey.

At first, it seemed too good to be true.

“The email was so simple and plain that I thought it was a joke and I deleted it. I literally deleted the email because I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’”

But it was true. Winfrey had found Lindsay-Noel, and wanted to add Cup of Té to her coveted list of “favourite things.”

Oprah Magazine announced Lindsay-Noel’s Cup of Té as one of Winfrey’s ‘Favourite Things’ of 2020.

Courtesy Taylor Linday-Noel

“Having grown up being obsessed with Oprah and still am, it was a dream come true. It was ‘pinch me.’ It was full circle. It was my mom’s greatest dream. It was everything all wrapped into one.”

Three years later, that recognition has changed the entire trajectory of Lindsay-Noel’s business. It also changed how she sees the expectations of, and limitations imposed on, people with disabilities.

Spencer West, at 42 years old, has had a lot more time to acclimatize to his disability, but it took him 30 of those years to recognize that disability is not a bad word.

Spencer West growing up in Wyoming.

Courtesy Spencer West

West acquired his disability at birth. He had a genetic condition called sacral agenesis, which affected his leg muscles. At five years old, his legs were amputated just below the pelvis. He was able to get around on his hands, but he was constantly told that was abnormal.

“I remember the doctor saying, ‘Every kid wants to walk.’ Disability was something that you were to overcome and disability was something that you didn’t want to see yourself as.”

Determined to overcome his disability, West moved to Toronto to take a job with a non-profit. In 2012, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a couple of friends to raise money for clean water in East Africa. He was literally sitting on top of the world.

But the real turning point came when a friend gave him what he calls “firm feedback” that helped him realize disability wasn’t something to be overcome, but accepted and embraced.

West says he remembers being told, “You’re making it seem like every disabled person can overcome their disability, and that’s just not true. And so for me, it was a really important moment to say, ‘Oh, I have a lot to learn and I really need to understand what the disability experience is because I have so much privilege with my disability.’”

That’s when West realized that not everyone has the ability to get out of their wheelchair and walk on their hands when it’s convenient. He realized he could be a force to push for accessibility changes that would help people with disabilities live fuller lives.

“So it was me unlearning and re-learning what disability justice is and what that looks like, and then understanding how I play a role in either perpetuating a negative narrative or how do I share my learning in real time and also help break down some of those barriers?”

Those barriers are pervasive and deeply entrenched – from public spaces to workplaces, businesses and pop culture.

“For many of us with disabilities, life is about this constant reminder about how we are different,” Jeff Preston, an associate professor of disability studies at King’s University College at Western University, told The New Reality. He has lived with muscular dystrophy since he was a baby.

Jeff Preston at King’s University College in London, Ont.

Brent Rose / Global News

He says despite the fact there are millions of Canadians who are disabled, they’re often forgotten.

“We have a weird way of imagining a world that doesn’t include disabled people and then become very surprised when a disabled person shows up, despite the fact that we account for somewhere around 15 to 20 per cent of the population.”

That, he says, has long been the story of disability in Canada.

“Disabled people and disability itself was seen as something that was really meant to be out of the public space and was purely a private affair.”

Historically, people with disabilities have often been confined to institutions where they were told they would be safe and comfortable. But Preston believes that was more likely done to assuage the fears of able-bodied people.

“Institutionalization is just one way that we try to keep disability out of the public eye, and try to relegate it into the home or into private spaces, into medical spaces, to try to protect, perhaps, the rest of the population from anxieties that disability awakens.”

Preston says disability forces us to confront fears about the frailty of the human body. As a result, our society has pushed people with disabilities into spaces where others wouldn’t have to see them, and created popular stereotypes to help justify excluding them from public life.

One of the most persistent stereotypes we see in movies and television is the disabled villain.

Safin, the disfigured villain from the 2021 Bond film ‘No Time to Die.’.

MGM/Universal Pictures

“When we look at a lot of our stories and what’s there is a villain, we often see a lot of disability.”

James Bond films have long given their villains facial disfigurements and other disabilities. It’s a common trope in films, from Darth Vader in Star Wars to Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Peter Pan’s nemesis in the 1991 film Hook.

“We think of main characters of Peter Pan, Hook the villain, an amputee who is literally named after his disability, who is bound by this desire to murder children because he has lost his hand,” Preston says.

Dustin Hoffman as Peter Pan’s nemesis, from the 1991 film ‘Hook.’.

CP/Amblin Entertainment/TriStar Pictures

“And then we wonder why people then look at disabled people and think, ‘Oh, they must be bitter or they must be angry. They might be violent.’ Disability becomes this cultural shorthand in pop culture to signify devious desires or the corruption of the mind as seen through the corruption of the body.”

But Preston says the world is changing more rapidly than he has ever seen, and digital media platforms have been one of the key tools to help people with disabilities organize and tell their stories without the filter of traditional media.

“I think that social media has been, I would say, a revolution for disabled people.”

Lindsay-Noel says “it’s absolutely transformative.”

“I would not be able to make the content I do without these platforms.”


Accessibility Restaurant Review of Then & Now 😍 – Love that they pay their employees a living wage, and that it is a tip free restaurant! So unique! – Accessibility 7.5/10 ♿️ – Food 8.5/10 😋 – #AccessByTay #torontorestaurant #torontolife #torontoeats #toronto #thenandowrestaurant #accessibility #restaurantreview #torontorestaurants

♬ Wes Anderson-esque Cute Acoustic – Kenji Ueda

She posts videos and photos about her life and the barriers she faces as a person with a disability, and accessibility reviews of restaurants, entertainment venues and other public spaces.

The Torontonian got the idea during the COVID-19 pandemic. When businesses started reopening, she realized there were only a few places she felt comfortable, and started documenting why her options were so limited.

The videos struck a nerve.

“I started filming pretty much everywhere we went, and I think people were quite shocked and appalled at how not accessible the city can be at times.”

Lindsay-Noel is also on the government of Ontario Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity, where she consults on accessibility issues.

She showed us some of the accessibility issues she encounters every day in her neighbourhood.

“You always have to be aware of your surroundings,” Lindsay-Noel says, pointing out potholes, cracks and walkways obstructed by construction scaffolding.

Then, she shows us a real-world example of why people with disabilities need to be consulted on city design projects. As she approaches a cement ramp down the sidewalk to get around a construction site, she asks Global’s Marianne Dimain to hold her shoulders to stop her from falling forward as her chair goes down the incline.

Global’s Marianne Dimain helps Taylor Lindsay-Noel down a sidewalk ramp.

Brent Rose / Global News

“I wouldn’t be able to do this by myself,” she says, explaining that the ramp is too steep.

“A lot of people think that they can just put any type of ramp anywhere. And it’s like, if you were to take a couple more seconds to think about the logistics, it’s like you’re throwing somebody on wheels down a 90-degree ramp.”

If she tried to descend the ramp without help, she’d fall forward, out of her wheelchair. And if nobody was there to hold her shoulders, she’d be forced to take a more dangerous path.

“I’d have to go on the road.”

Lindsay-Noel has a growing fan base, more than 100,000 followers on TikTok alone, where she explains the myriad barriers in everyday life for people with disabilities. And she says if the feedback is any sign, the message is getting through.

“I get emails from people saying, ‘I went out somewhere tonight and they didn’t have a ramp and I noticed this place was inaccessible. So I told the manager they need to get on it,’” she says.

“And so just little things like that make me realize it isn’t just a vacuum. It’s reaching people in a real way where they remember and are trying to apply and advocate in their own lives, which is everything I could ask for.”

West says he gets similar comments from his social media followers. He’s used his trademark wit and comedic expressions to attract an astounding 4.5 million fans on TikTok. He often gets approached in public.

“I was just travelling and a couple of people were so kind to come up and say hello. They had recognized me, and what I’m so grateful for, and what the feedback I got from these folks was, ‘We learn so much from you about the disability experience,’ and that’s the best thing that anyone can ever say to me.”

There is still a lot of work to do before disabled people are represented in media and pop culture at a rate consistent with their numbers. A Nielsen study in 2022 found that only four per cent of video productions included disability themes or attributes, which is less than a quarter of disabled people’s share of the population.

And when disabled characters are depicted, they’re often played by able-bodied actors.

“There’s a couple of reasons why I’m not in favour of non-disabled people playing disabled characters,” Preston says. “I think, number one, perhaps most importantly: there aren’t a lot of roles that disabled people are offered that they have the ability to do. So I think, number one, you’re taking jobs from people who might not have many other opportunities to work.”

Preston also says fundamentally, able-bodied actors don’t know what it’s like to be disabled, so they perpetuate stereotypes.

“They don’t understand what it’s like, they don’t understand what it should look like. We’ve heard tons of stories of actors with disabilities that do get into productions and look at the script and say, ‘This is silly. I would never do this.’”

However, Preston believes social media has begun to erase the long-held assumption that there isn’t a mass audience for content that includes genuine portrayals of people with disabilities, by people with disabilities.

“There was suddenly this opportunity to get out from behind editorial processes and financial restrictions that are placed on media production, for independent random people to start putting their word out into the mass audience and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a story to tell. Are you interested? Do you want to read it?’ And we see through from jumping from blogs up to social media, the answer is absolutely yes.”

Among several examples, Preston points to the Netflix show Special, a comedy about a disabled man who goes public with his disability after initially hiding it. It was written by and stars Ryan O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy. The show’s first season earned four Emmy nominations, including Best Comedy.

For people with disabilities like West, it was an inspiration.

“That was the first time I’d seen a sitcom about a disabled person written by a disabled person starring a disabled person. Like, that was so cool.”

As more disabled content creators are building huge audiences, television and movie producers are noticing. Both West and Lindsay-Noel have been approached recently to appear in television shows.

West isn’t in it for fame — it’s about breaking down barriers, and proving that disability is nothing to fear or hide from view.

“Disabled folks just want the same experience as everyone else,” he says. “We want to have careers, we want to have social lives. We want to potentially have partners and love and sex and all of those things that non-disabled folks want too.”

He says social media gives people with disabilities control over the narrative.

“For so long we had other people telling our stories. We had other people portraying our stories that didn’t have the disabled experience,” he says.

From a young girl with Olympic dreams, Lindsay-Noel has emerged from personal tragedy with a new goal, and a new story to tell.

“This last year I really honed in on what my why is, and my why, I really feel like, is to make this place a more accessible world.”

With every new follower and every new video, people with disabilities are making themselves seen and heard, no longer hidden from view.

“When we’re portrayed on TV or movies, we’re sad, we’re in bed all day, we’re depressed,” Lindsay-Noel says.

“I’m working. I have amazing friends. I make stupid mistakes, I go out, I have fun, and I’m a contributing member of society. And I am trying in every way possible and every avenue to continue to break down those stereotypes.”

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