“A few of you have been asking why exactly I use a wheelchair, so I thought I would explain,” Michael Carthy, 18, from New Mexico, says in one of his most popular TikToks. “It’s actually because… my legs couldn’t carry the weight of my massive dump-truck ass.”
As the video suggests, Carthy is indeed in a wheelchair, and a lot of his TikToks are about that fact, but not all of them. For some reason, though, TikTok previously determined that content of this nature — that is, videos made by people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities — ought not to be easily accessible. As documents leaked in December 2019 revealed, TikTok assumed that these people were at risk of being cyberbullied, and so, before people like Carthy could decide for themselves, TikTok made the presumably well-intentioned but ultimately ableist decision to lessen the visibility of disabled creators’ content.
Carthy is unsure if his own content was ever actually suppressed. “The day I posted my first TikTok, it got 100,000 views,” he says — his first video was posted in October 2019, and he currently has 427,000 followers and has amassed 9.2 million likes. “I’ve come across a few other disabled creators, and I can’t explain why, but I have significantly more followers than any other disabled creator I’ve seen. I don’t know why, but it seems like I’m not affected [by TikTok suppression.]”
For a time, TikTok moderators were instructed to remove content by disabled creators from the “For You” page, making it unlikely anyone would view it unless they specifically searched for the creator. Whether this happened to Carthy is, again, unclear, though he speculates that it happened to his disabled peers (Carthy recommends wheelchairblondie, jenstarzec and ybba_lynn as a few names to check out), considering how most still have only a fraction of the followers he has. Either way, TikTok has since stopped the practice, calling it a “blunt and temporary policy” that had ended before the documents were leaked. Thus, Carthy and other disabled creators remain open to whatever potential cruel comments and bullying may come. And despite what TikTok apparently thought, they can handle it just fine.
For Carthy, certainly a broad part of his appeal on the platform is just that he’s funny. Often, his content — as well as that of other disabled creators — isn’t even about challenging assumptions at all, it’s just about having fun on the internet, like everyone else. Considering his follower count, people seem to like it, and although Carthy’s audience is among the highest, many of his favorite TikTokers who are also disabled, such as castallian and wheelierin, have thousands of followers, too.
While Carthy’s videos often involve self-deprecating jabs at his own disability or the thoughtless assumptions people have about his own intelligence as the result of his appearance, his humor isn’t strictly disability-focused, either. “I don’t want to use my disability as a crutch to make jokes, and I don’t want it to be the sole focus of my content. I do make the disabled jokes that are easy and obvious, but I try really hard to make jokes that don’t revolve around my disability at all.” The response has largely been positive, albeit with some sadly predictable exceptions. “I’ve been on the internet just as long as anyone else my age has,” says Carthy. “It’s not lost on me that people are gonna be dicks because they can.”
Rude comments aren’t even Carthy’s biggest grievance, however — it’s the people who ask if they’re allowed to laugh. This is actually the subject of Carthy’s biggest TikTok, which has over 11 million views. Using a popular audio clip from Lil Dicky’s “Pillow Talking,” Carthy shows himself on his phone with a text line that says, “Me: *willingly posts a video making fun of myself,*” followed by a text line that says, “Half the comment section: ‘aM i AlLoWeD tO lAuGh?’”
Carthy then presents the kicker, synced with the Lil Dicky track: “Yeah, that’s like the whole point.”
In high school, Carthy says he often used humor as a means of establishing his identity among his peers. “They were a lot less like, ‘That’s the disabled kid in my class’ and were more like, ‘Oh that’s Mike, he’s being an asshole again. We’re friends.’” On TikTok, his jokes serve a similar utility, but he also understands it as a type of defense. “The bottom line is that I have stupid ideas and want to make jokes and have people see those jokes, otherwise there’s no point,” he says. “There’s a reason I don’t directly say things like this on my TikTok, ‘Hey, don’t treat disabled people like three-year-olds, please’ — I could make a minute-long video and explain it and while it’s informative, it’s not entertaining. It’s not what I want to do.”
“With TikTok, there’s a lot of dark and edgy humor — if I made that video and said, ‘Don’t be dicks to disabled people,’ I think I’d get a lot more hate and jokes made toward me,” he continues. “That’s one of the good things about doing what I do in joke format. If you’re laughing at yourself, no one can attack you. You’re already doing that yourself.”
Nathan French, 19, from Kentucky, is another TikToker who uses comedy as a sort of protection. Under the username badbitxhinky, he currently has 65,000 followers and 2.3 million likes. Among his popular videos, French discusses what it’s like to be gay and disabled, the fetishization and misuse of the word “cripple” and misconceptions people have about disabled people’s sexuality, all with levity. Often, he’ll riff on common TikTok trends, like the one where people pretend they’re secretly being filmed on the Dark Web. “Me watching ‘Deaf Crippled [sic] gets stabbed to death’ on the dark web,” a text box reads, as French looks into his camera. The angle then changes to show French from above, with a new text box showing a red circle emoji and the words, “Live: 17K Viewing.”
Like Carthy, French hasn’t noticed any significant suppression of his content, but he did see a decrease in disability-related content on the platform as a whole. “I did notice that I hadn’t received as much disabled content on my ‘For You’ page, but I think it mainly affected people with smaller followings,” he tells me. “At that point, I was disappointed in TikTok. The ‘For You’ page was supposed to be randomized, but at that point, it started just being more popular content. So I just started making more disabled TikToks, so I could put that in place for my fellow disabled people.”
French feels as though, in persisting with the app, he’s providing a platform for people to learn. “My message is that I want my page to be a safe space where everyone can interact with each other,” he says. “I’ve noticed that when I post about my disabled experiences, people always ask questions respectfully. If I can’t get to it in time, other people answer the questions. I want my page to be a place where people can learn something and grow. That’s always been my goal.”
While French is a bit more vocal about educating viewers than Carthy, he similarly views TikTok largely as a place to be himself and bypass people’s assumptions. “People will always see that I’m disabled, they’ll think that I’m special needs and will treat me differently,” he explains. “It’s really hard on me, going through that every day, people staring at me because I’m in a wheelchair. On the internet, I can be whoever I want to be. I’m allowed to present myself as the real me. You can’t always see my wheelchair at first on TikTok, you can’t see me as disabled, so people get to know me as a person. Out in the real world, people are always going to see me as disabled and be apprehensive.”
Carthy, French and other disabled content creators on TikTok have proved themselves capable of managing whatever bullying they might potentially face, just as the rest of TikTok is expected to do. More than anything, though, their viewership proves that their content speaks for itself — people want to hear what they have to say. And even if they didn’t want to hear it, what’s important is that it still has the chance to be said. “I want our community to still be visible,” says French. “We’ve always persevered. We’ll always be visible no matter what anyone does to us.”