Disability in the Media – Changing for the Better?
There is no denying that the representation of people with disabilities in the media has risen in recent times. Especially in visual media where shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and ABC’s Speechless have cast actors with disabilities in roles that may or may not be related to their particular type of disability.
And the onslaught of reality TV has its own loyal audience – A&E’s Born This Way has been renewed for a third season. In recent news, a 15-month-old Georgia boy with Down syndrome was to be featured in holiday campaigns by children’s clothing company OshKosh B’Gosh.
Media advocacy organization GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) released its annual report assessing representation of minority groups on television, including people with disabilities, with findings showing that characters with disabilities account for 1.7% of all series regulars on network shows for the 2016-2017 season, the highest percentage recorded since GLAAD started tracking disability representation on TV in 2010.
But what does this increased representation of people with disabilities in the media signify? Is the media moving in the right direction in terms of portraying characters with disabilities accurately? How are we as a society engaging with its media products?
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, co-director, Emory Disability Studies Initiative, provides some insight on the matter. “It is important that these shows are understood as public conversation starters, and we pay attention to the very fact that disability is in there. It is a political and cultural issue. People with disabilities have traditionally been represented in the media in stereotypical and often discriminatory ways. There are several expected cultural scripts that get mobilized when media makes stories about disability. So we need to see what is the cultural work of these stories.”
One disability story that’s embedded everywhere and is inherited is the sentimental or “inspirational” story, which we see repeatedly, as with any kind of stereotypical narrative received in culture. The concern is whether such media products reinforce the kinds of stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes that people with disabilities experience, in an era of understanding disability as a social and cultural identity. For a group that has historically been excluded, disadvantaged and often been discriminated against, this is a completely new understanding of what it means to be identified as a person with disability.
Case in point being the book by Jojo Moyes adapted to a feature film, Me Before You, where disability was a central theme of the storyline. While the movie begins as a formulaic romance, it ends with the quadriplegic male character opting for euthanasia (chemical killing or physician assisted suicide). There is a great deal of activism in the disability community around issues of quality of life for people with disabilities and the logic of people with disabilities using euthanasia. There were huge protests on social media and at movie theaters internationally surrounding the movie.
A professor of English at Emory University, where her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, feminist theory and bioethics, Garland-Thomson addresses the different conversations that such media representation of people with disabilities enables. “There are useful conversations in the disability advocacy, activism and rights communities. There is public conversation through op-eds and blogs, such as the Disability Visibility project by Alice Wong. There is also conversation about employing actors without disabilities to play characters with disabilities. There is a long history of this.”
But now, in Speechless, Micah Fowler, the actor who plays JJ, has cerebral palsy in real life and so does his character. Christopher Joseph “Chris” Burke played Charles “Corky” Thatcher in ABC’s Life Goes On, making him portray the first character in a network television series with Down syndrome. Lauren Potter portrayed the recurring character Becky Jackson, a cheerleader with Down syndrome, in all six seasons of the Fox TV show Glee.
Kayla Brown, counselor/coordinator of Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) at University of Washington expresses similar sentiments. “Speechless spins a different narrative than we are used to seeing for people with disabilities. JJ’s character has cerebral palsy and it prevents him from speaking out loud so he has assisted technology to do that for him. The idea of other people speaking for him and on his behalf was worrisome, but the show demonstrates that assisted technology is empowering and though JJ has other people speak out loud for him, he certainly does not accept misrepresentation of that.”
Brown works with high school and college students at DO-IT and disability in the media is part of her focus as she tries to integrate a more social justice lens for people she works with. “One of my tests in looking at media and looking at characters specifically, is that I look to see if I took away their disability or anything related to their disability to the storyline or in their characteristics, what would be left. I look for relationships, hobbies, interests and when we look at JJ, it is apparent he is much like a typical teenager.”
One of the most prominent actors with disabilities to have made a mark in cinema worldwide is Peter Dinklage, who plays the role of Lord Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. In fact, The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd calls him the first dwarf heartthrob in her article in the Sunday Review dated April 2016. “In my view, he has been appropriately glamourized like any other celebrity or actor,” says Garland-Thomson, whose work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy. “That is a benefit, a kind of inclusion. The plot knits in his disability, but it is not the only element of his character. A lot of people probably love the show and his character, watching without any idea that the fact that he is there is significant in terms of the politics of social justice.”
According to Garland-Thomson, who is also the author of Staring: How We Look and several other books, the inclusion of people with disabilities, even if the plot is filled with expected stereotypes and discriminatory narrative, is a good thing because it keeps the conversation about disability going. “There are very few media products that do unequivocal positive political social work, in part because of the very nature of media products. Ads that have people with disabilities in them are great, but that is where disability is an incidental aspect. It can be included as one of the characters, but it is harder to do that in narrative.”
The FX horror anthology television series American Horror Story: Freak Show cast Mat Fraser as a person with a disability. Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down syndrome, was also cast in several seasons of the show. Adds Brown, “Every character Brewer played was integrated like a normal character. It felt so natural, and that was a shining moment. What we are seeing is more characters written in a way that’s appropriate and not objectified as an inspiration for others, which, 90% of the time, that’s what they are there for.”
But reality television can be deceiving because a lot of it is scripted and has the power to harm or benefit communities. “Rather than telling a narrative of a person with a disability through a depiction or having it acted out by somebody without a disability, these characters are in relationships, working and having businesses so in a lot of ways, it might be a good first step as long as we are always being critical with it because a lot of times it is not through an intersectional lens which is the main problem with media,” says Brown.
“Sundance TV’s show Push Girls starred women in wheelchairs overcoming disabilities. The narrative was people with disabilities could be beautiful too. But what message does that send when you are promoting mainstream beauty standards not representative of community? On one hand, seeing these women being comfortable with their sexuality is great, but instead of having a separate show, integrating them into mainstream type media would be better.”
So where is this conversation headed? “Where I try to head it, and a lot of people do, is not to make a judgment about a particular show or narrative as terrible and boycott it, or great because of unequivocal political and social work. It is best to continue having conversation about disability, as long as it is a theme and people with disabilities are in these various media narratives. If there is too much policing, it is not very productive because every cultural representation does certain kinds of work. We can’t always have control over what work it does, and we can’t predict what the reception will be.”
Brown, the author of a multi-part series on disability representation and the media, says, “It is important to be careful and critical of the trend because there is a very fine line. The ‘inspiration’ storyline is not a true representation, and we need endings of plotlines besides the ‘they get cured’ or ‘they die’ scenarios. Visual media is symbolic and influential, and we need that in all forms of media because it is crucial to how we perceive people and groups.”
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