Crip Crusader' Dominick Evans of Detroit Works Toward Full Onscreen Representation For Disabled and Trans People

His latest project, the music video 'Spaces,' is about being misunderstood

Dominick Evans has an alter ego: the Crip Crusader. He's on a mission to make sure that disabled and transgender people are represented in the media and not just by cisgender and able-bodied actors.

Evans came up with the Crip Crusader while talking with some friends.  

"I really like comics and there's the Caped Crusader and we were joking about how my advocacy is like being a superhero," Evans tells Pride Source, explaining that "crip" is a word that he and other members of the disabled community have reclaimed.

"I hated the word when I was a kid because it made me feel different and less than," he says, noting that he embraced it in college. "It's kind of me taking back a word that was hurled at me as a kid."

Evans, who identifies as trans, non-binary, and queer, has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a progressive muscle disease. But don't discount him just because there are things he is physically unable to do.

"SMA does not make you incapable of everything," he says. "I feel like as someone with SMA I'm completely dismissed as a human, but I've done all these amazing things."

Evans is a director, screenwriter, Twitch streamer, public speaker, film scholar, TV/film consultant, partner and dad.

His latest project is the first video written, directed and performed by members of the SMA community. It debuted yesterday, Nov. 9. 

"The video was made by a group of us from the SMA community with the support of Genentech," Evans says. "We just talked about what we wanted to see in the video. The singer, James [Ian], who wrote the song, took those ideas and created a song called 'Spaces' and it's about the spaces we take up in the world. And for me the idea was that disabled people were the world's largest marginalized group, but we're never really seen or understood."

Evans has felt this personally. "I feel like people see me and they don't understand me or don't really see the person I am," he says. "They just see my wheelchair and they make assumptions, or when they find out I'm trans they make assumptions."

The idea for "Spaces" "resonated so much, and everybody in the group really felt that," he says. "It was electrifying to me."

The video and song celebrate "how diverse we are as a community," Evans says. "How we deserve to be in whatever spaces we find ourselves in, and the spaces can be beautiful and wonderful."

Evans describes "Spaces" as a pop song that "would be a great summer bop. It's got this kind of beat that drives you."

Musician James Ian, who also has SMA, is located in Los Angeles. Evans is located in Michigan. But that didn't stop them from collaborating. 

SMA affects everybody differently. According to Evans, it can affect any muscle. Some people with SMA, like Ian, can stand, sing and play guitar and other instruments, while Evans cannot. 

"I need help with everything physical," Evans says. "But I obviously can direct a music video, so I feel like it doesn't matter that I need help doing physical stuff because I'm so capable of doing so many other things."

A behind-the-scenes shot from Dominick Evans' music video for "Spaces." Photo courtesy of Dominick Evans

Evans went through the process of storyboarding, "Then they brought in some other creative people who took my ideas," he says, adding that they usually found a way to make his ideas work.

"I'm really lucky," he says, "because even when they said no to me, what ended up happening was they would come back to me, and it would end up being a 'Yes.'"

During the shoot Evans had a set up at home so that he could see the cast and crew and they had a set up with a tablet so they could see him. 

"I was looking out. I could see James and the stage and the set up, and on the other side, people could come talk to me," he says.

"From the conception, I was there helping to make the film," Evans says. He worked remotely with an on set director located in California. "He knew what my vision was, and he was really willing to listen to any input I had, any thoughts I had, any shots I wanted. I was really in the driver's seat the whole way."

The "Spaces" video ended up being a much bigger project than Evans initially anticipated. "They let the video grow with what we wanted," he says.

"I thought this was going to be this little indie video, and it turned out to be this really big production," he says. "It just kind of snowballed."

The experience is inspiring to Evans. "Directors don't have to be on set any more and I think this could really open up so many opportunities for disabled directors," he says. "I shot from home. I was in bed because I had chronic pain, and it was no big deal."

Evans hopes that this can lead to other things. "I really dream that this will lead to me being able to direct a full movie this way because it would do so much for so many people who would like to direct but have been told no," he says. "What else am I capable of, and what else are disabled people capable of?"

That's a question Evans has been exploring for many years. The answer? A lot more than many people think.

Evans began the Twitter chat #FilmDis in 2014 as a way to discuss disability representation in the media. What started as a hashtag grew to become FilmDis, a media monitoring organization Evans and his partner run. Their motto is "Nothing about us without us."

"It's kind of one of our rallying calls," he says. "You shouldn't be telling our stories without involving us in the process."

FilmDis does an annual study of representation and is working on number three. Evans says he examines representation through an intersectional lens. He breaks things down, cataloging by categories like disability, gender and sexual orientation.

"So I have all the stats on how many disabled LGBTQ people there are on television and let me tell you, it's abysmal," he says. 

When there are representative roles, "They don't want to give us more than one marginalization," he says, noting that the state of disability on television is "predominantly white, cis and male."

"I see this in the LGBT community, too. We kind of ignore that disability is often a normal part of LGBTQIA people's lives," which sometimes leaves Evans feeling like "I'm too disabled to be trans and too trans to be disabled. Or that's how I'm treated in both communities."

That's why the "Spaces" video is so important to him. "We're not seeing many trans directors or disabled directors," he says. "I want to represent both communities."

Representation is essential. "When we don't see ourselves, it makes us feel like we're not OK, and maybe we shouldn't be here," he says. "Not seeing myself made me feel really alone. I grew up hating myself because I was disabled. I didn't really understand I was trans until I was in my early 20s, and I didn't come out as queer until I was 16. I knew I was different from other disabled people, but I couldn't explain the difference. Having words for that really helped me."

Not feeling like he belonged in the world caused a great deal of pain for Evans. "[I would think] it would be better for everyone if I was gone. That's the sad truth. I hate that that's true," he says. "I struggled with suicidal ideation from the age of 5 until I was in my early 20s, and that was really when I started accepting myself as a disabled person."

As an adult he has a lot of compassion for his younger self. "I just want to hug little me because I just hated myself so much, and I really, really hope that the disabled kids and the queer kids and the trans kids see this video and see, 'That person is like me and they made it through 40 years.'"

Living past 40 was not a given for Evans. "Being disabled, being trans, I didn't think I would make it to 40," he says. Growing up he was told, "You're gonna die, you're not going to have a future, you're not going to go to college. This video is so important because it breaks that."

"Spaces" sends the message that "we're allowed to be," says Evans. "There's so many kids that grow up like me thinking they just don't belong here and their life is not worth living, and that couldn't be further from the truth."


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