Disability Representation and Empowerment in Monica Roe’s Air

Emmie likes speed.

Emmie likes stunts.

Emmie likes to feel free.

She doesn’t like assumptions. She doesn’t like staring. She doesn’t like it when people touch her chair.

Air is about a 12-year-old athlete who dreams of being a WCMX (wheelchair motocross) champion. Emmie works hard to earn funds to purchase a high-end chair designed for stunts. Until then, she’s happy doing wheelies and speeding down ramps in her usual chair. Then one day, an unfortunate wipeout sends her school into a panic. Now she can’t go anywhere without a school-appointed aide by her side. Worse, the community is doing a fundraiser for the chair she was doing just fine purchasing on her own. Emmie feels like she’s gone from being a person to being a cause.

Author Monica Roe works as a pediatric physical therapy provider. In her job she examines how much assistance (if any) is required for a child with disabilities. In one instance, she was asked to examine a case where the school insisted a student needed an aide, while the student insisted on his independence. She used this real-life experience to shape Emmie’s journey in Air.

The book covers a lot of background on the rights of those who have disabilities. Starting with the 504 Sit-In protest in 1977. People with disabilities sat in federal buildings to demand the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Prior to this, public schools were not required to admit students with disabilities. Roe goes on to demonstrate that as important as these disability rights are, sometimes those with good intentions end up making things worse. In this story, people are so eager to help Emmie they end up forgetting to listen to her wants and needs.

What made Air such an enjoyable story was Emmie’s bold character. She’s never afraid to say what she’s thinking. She doesn’t live by the expectations of others and goes down her own path. At the end of the day, she’s still a 12-year-old girl, going through normal 12-year-old things. She is navigating friendships and first crushes. She wants to be free to have fun and be herself.

Air is a clever and positive read about an important issue that is often over-looked.