For years, Laiken Olive pretended.

“For most of my life, I ignored the fact that I was disabled. I didn’t want to be disabled, so I pretended like I wasn‘t,” said the 21-year-old Houma, La., resident. “But ignoring that part of myself didn’t make it go away.”

Now, Olive, who was born without part of their right arm, uses TikTok to educate people about disability and limb difference, posting to more than 28,000 followers on the TikTok account @thebionicbabe.

Olive has long explored limb differences through art, from making sculptures of arms to writing a screenplay about “finding the limb-different community” — all with the hope of normalizing something that is, well, normal.

Olive’s videos are part of a trend on TikTok where creators living with disabilities will tell their stories or explain how they perform certain tasks, using hashtags such as #disabled and #amputee. They stand in stark opposition to Hollywood, where people living with disabilities is one of the most underrepresented groups. Its 56.7 million members constitute nearly 20 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census — and a study from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that focused on 900 popular movies from 2007 to 2016 found that only 2.7 percent of speaking characters were portrayed as disabled.

Even when they are represented on screen, it’s often by able-bodied actors. To wit: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx have all won Oscars in the past two decades by playing visibly disabled characters. Even more recently, Dwayne Johnson played an action-hero amputee in 2018’s “Skyscraper” and Bryan Cranston was a wealthy quadriplegic in 2017’s “The Upside.”

Jenni Gold, a wheelchair-using director who made “CinemAbility,” a documentary about disability in Hollywood, told The Washington Post in 2019, “In a crowd scene, there often isn’t one person with a disability. If you don’t exist in that world of the film, how do you exist in real life?”

“There’s been a severe lack in limb different and disabled representation in the media for a long time,” Olive said. “Usually, when you see a disabled character, it’s unrealistic or they’re falsely portrayed.”

Meanwhile, people such as Olive who identify as nonbinary are not commonly seen in mass media, they added.

“I’ve never seen someone such as myself, and I thought it would be nice to have that kind of representation,” Olive said. “To let other people know that I do exist.”

TikTok — as all social media platforms — allows Olive to circumvent the Hollywood system. Olive joined the platform last May but began posting regularly about six months ago, often focusing on their limb difference. An early one titled “a personal message to film makers who fake disabilities rather than casting actor” shows Olive standing with the middle finger of their left hand defiantly raised.

Now, though, Olive is focusing less on such punk rock-esque statements and more on educating the public about limb differences. One way of doing so came from a partnership with Open Bionics, the creators of bionic limbs. Olive wears one inspired by the “Metal Gear Solid” video games, which features a character named Venom Snake who loses his left arm and requires a bionic replacement.

Olive regularly posts TikToks showing them using the arm in various ways, everything from weightlifting to goofily caressing their boyfriend’s face.

In others, they answer questions from comments left on those videos. In one, Olive explains how lifting weights with the bionic arm forces their biceps to engage, thus strengthening the muscle even though the bionic hand grasps the bar.

Though Olive said the experience has been mostly positive, they still face toxic comments on all their social media platforms. Some, Olive said, are “purposeful” while others are “ignorant.”

“The thing that really gets to me is the amount of people who told me they want to cut off their arm so they can also have a bionic arm. I know their intention is not to be malicious, but every time I hear it, it just floors me,” Olive said. “They’re lacking the full understanding of what this experience has presented challenge-wise to me.”

Usually, though, Olive encounters people who are “curious and want to learn more.”

“Even if I’m going to get that negativity, I’m still accomplishing my goal,” Olive said. “They’re still seeing me. They still know I exist, and people like me exist. In the end, that was all I really want.”


A previous version of this article misidentified actor Dwayne Johnson as Dwyane. The article has been corrected.

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