Lights! Camera! And... Ableism!

Kathy Bates

“Disability is an essential piece of diversity, and our characters and    actors should definitely, 100 percent reflect this.” - Dwayne The Rock Johnson 

I love watching TV or going to movies, especially if I can relate to at least one of the characters, but that happens much less often than it should. Media representation of authentic characters with disabilities might have improved in the past few years, but we still have a long way to go. The Ruderman Family Foundation ReportOn the Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television, points out that people with disabilities make up 20% of our population and are significantly underrepresented in the television industry. The report also states that 95% of characters with disabilities are portrayed by actors without disabilities. The film industry isn’t doing any better. This year was the 92nd Oscars Award Ceremony, and it also happens to be the first year that the Oscar stage had a wheelchair ramp. Ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities, for years took a front-row seat. However slow, this is progress. Although they didn’t win, the cast and crew from Crip Camp were nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The film won top documentary honors from 10 organizations, including the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

What is media representation?

It is how media such as television, movies, radio, and books portray individuals or groups of people to an audience. We are all multi-dimensional. Although we may have some things in common, it’s important to remember that we are also individuals. Commonly used in movies and television, stereotypes are assumptions or oversimplified ideas of a person or group of people. For example, all grandmothers have gray hair and bake cookies. All Arab men are terrorists. All people with disabilities are weak and sickly. All tall Black men are athletic.

Media has a long history of using stereotypes to portray characters with disabilities. Have you ever noticed how many villains in comic books, on television and in films have a mental illness or some other physical disability? The first one that comes to mind is Captain Hook from the children’s book Peter Pan. Dr. No and Jaws from the James Bond films are notorious criminals who have mental illness and physical disfigurements. On the flip side, we see stereotypes  present in superheroes with disabilities. The Marvel comic book hero Daredevil became blind after an incident, but through training was able to strengthen his other senses and become a superhero. Neither stereotype is accurate and they encourage unrealistic attitudes about people with disabilities.

News stories about people with disabilities really make me angry because no matter how positive a story is supposed to be, it always starts out with someone who suffers from whatever “fill-in-the-blank” disability and suddenly they’re an instant victim. To say that someone is suffering just because they have a disability is insulting. It may not be easy to live with a disability, but disability is a natural part of life for some people, and assuming that they are suffering is absolutely wrong. This attitude encourages the idea that disability equals illness or weakness

Sometimes adults with developmental disabilities are portrayed as innocent, naïve eternal children. Movies like Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man are perfect examples of this. Everyone can continue to grow and learn throughout our life span. It’s been common for comedians to make fun of people with disabilities, and they may even use the “r” word. Adam Sandler’s movie 50 First Dates makes fun of people who sustain head injuries and experience memory loss. Focusing only on the disability, and not the whole person, makes us overlook things we have in common. Media stereotypes put the focus on the disability instead of the person.

Why does authentic disability representation matter?

Media has the potential to break down stereotypes and reduce the stigma that is more disabling than any physical, emotional, or cognitive disability. If society is ever going to see disability as natural diversity then full inclusion has to be the norm. Deaf filmmaker and executive Delbert Whetter said,  "The many nuances that make a performance believable is informed by lived experience. Acting deaf or disabled does not equal performing a character who is deaf or disabled. Authentic casting helps ensure you’ll have actors that understand that and position you for success."

We all need to be represented in the media, at the movies, on television, in advertisements as models, and characters in books. Disability is not going away, and never discriminates. Our community needs role models and people to look up to. When you start to see that representation you feel validated, and the world begins to open more opportunities. Suppose we start to see authentic characters with disabilities and move away from storylines about overcoming the adversity of disability and focus more on the character as a whole and not just their diagnosis. If we do that, disability can truly be seen as accepted diversity. There should be more opportunities for people with disabilities to be part of the whole creative process in media today.

From Where I Sit…

When I was in the second or third grade, I found a children’s book about a teacher who got around using a wheelchair. That simple little story helped me understand what was possible. 15 years later, I graduated from college with my teaching degree. Positive representation of people with disabilities in the media, not only encourages society to see the value of diversity, but it also helps us see our value as individuals. 

Ali Stroker, an actress and wheelchair user, was awarded one of theaters biggest honors in 2019. She took home the Tony for featured actress in a musical for her performance as Ado Annie in the revival of Oklahoma!. During her acceptance speech, Ali proudly declared, “This award is for every kid who has a disability, a limitation or a challenge who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena.”