Opinion: In Exchange For Cheap Laughs Netflix Stigmatizes And Bullies The Disabled

Guest post by the Honorable Tony Coelho, retired U.S. Congressman from California and the principal author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is the founder of The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

As someone who has lived with seizures for more than sixty years, I deeply resent Netflix’s insensitive grab for a cheap laugh in its new movie, The After Party.

In the movie, the main character, a young rapper, has a seizure in the middle of a live performance. As the seizing young man proceeds to thrash about and vomit on the audience, others in the crowd record what soon becomes a viral video — and “Seizure Boy” had arrived.

After personally watching the entire film, I feel strongly that Netflix’ response that our concern is exaggerated in fact goes right to my point. They don’t understand stigma and how media reaffirms stigma with name-calling. That must change, now!

What’s funny to some alters the lives of others. And regrettably, with the success of this film Netflix will be an active participant in mainstreaming – even glamorizing – the kind of bullying and mocking of people with disabilities that so many have worked for years to end.

The misperception of seizures, and the stigma that accompanies it has impacted my life greatly.

As a college student, I was denied entry to the priesthood because my seizures were seen as a sign that I was demon possessed. Later, despite having top grades in my college class, I was consistently denied job interviews. As a result, I became depressed and suicidal.

Years later, during my first race for Congress, my opponent openly mocked me for having seizures – implying I was unfit and incapable of performing the responsibilities of a Member of Congress. I was called the next day by a reporter and I responded that during my 13 years working as staff to the former Congressman, I knew a lot of folks who went to the White House and had a fit – at least I would have an excuse! People Magazine told that story about me in the 1980’s and I knew then that I had hit a nerve for others like me looking for someone to correct the stigma that all people with disabilities endure.

But my trials hardly compare to that of others. Nearly 3.4 million individuals, of whom 470,000 are children, have epilepsy or a seizure disorder in America. It affects over 65 million people worldwide. In some cultures, seizures continue to hold the stigma of being a type of “possession.”

I took a stand for the rights of people with disabilities by pursuing passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA provided people with disabilities equal access to employment, public facilities, and transportation and made it possible for them to become a full participating member of society. The ADA, which had unprecedented bi-partisan support, is considered to be the most important civil rights legislation enacted in the past 30 years.

And yet, our work is still not done. Stigma continues to hinder acceptance for many of us in the disability community. And shows mocking the “Seizure Boy” on Netflix make stigma acceptable for a whole new generation. I will re-double my efforts to ensure that Hollywood gets this right and I challenge Netflix to work with The Coelho Center and other leading disability organizations to work to eradicate stigma once and for all.
Isn’t that fair, and about time?