The disabled versus the media

Finding accurate representation when disabled is sometimes as difficult as finding a four-leaf clover. When an able-bodied person creates a piece of media that includes or centers around the story of a disabled person, even when done without malicious intent, challenges can occur when it comes to understanding the intricacies of being disabled. That’s the case, whether insinuating they’d be better off dead in the film “Me Before You” (2016), or by using an able-bodied person for what should be a disabled persons’ role in “The Upside” (2018).

Girls play with Barbies tailor-made to have disabilities.

Girls play with Barbies tailor-made to have disabilities.

As a disabled person, it seems to me the lines can become blurred. It shows a point of view and lack of understanding of the disabled community that is already misunderstood by the able-bodied world. Disabled activists speak out against media that misrepresent the disabled, much like the films mentioned above. Having an able-bodied person playing a disabled character happens often, but it shouldn’t. There are disabled actors willing and ready to play the parts. It just takes some searching.

Mattel officials recently announced they are adding two Barbie dolls with disabilities – one in a wheelchair, and one with a removable prosthetic leg. The company will also include a ramp for the Barbie Dream House. Little girls with disabilities around the world will now get to see themselves represented in a way many girls, who are now women, never witnessed in their childhood.

ABC has a popular TV show centered around a family with a teenage son with cerebral palsy. “Speechless” debuted in 2016. It stars Micah Fowler as J.J. DiMeo. Both character and actor have cerebral palsy in real life. Mainstream media can offer accurate portrayals of disability using disabled actors and be successful. On the other hand, “Me Before You” centers around a quadriplegic named Will who bases his worth on how much he can contribute to society. He is then “saved” by the love of a beautiful girl, Louisa, further invalidating the actual struggles and triumphs of a disabled person. Later, Will chooses to follow through with euthanasia because he feels Louisa would be better off without him and his disability. This contributes to the idea that disabled people are not worth anything unless they’re able-bodied.

Roughly 56.7 million, or about 19 % of the U.S. population, reported having a disability in 2010, according to a comprehensive report released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Some disabilities are not visible. Not every disabled person uses a mobility device. That should be considered in conjunction with visible disabilities and the accurate portrayal of the differently abled. Some people may have both visible and invisible disabilities.

How disabled people and disability as a whole are viewed is incredibly important. Much of how the world views those of us who are disabled is through media. Seeing misrepresentations can impact our lives in a bigger way than some may realize. It can affect how people treat us, care for us and help us in the long run. If you are making art about or featuring a person with disabilities, have the disabled person contribute to the project and take an active part in what you are making.