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Disability Representation in Media

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Discussions about diversity in the media have been a polarizing topic for many years now. This has caused TV and movies to make strides with some forms of representation, however, disability is often left untouched. In the past, disability has been shown as a form of “inspiration” or a joke. This leaves very little positive or realistic story for people who are disabled and people who are not disabled to see on their screens. Without the representation this can make many individuals feel left out or unseen.

In the US alone, one in four people have a disability. This ranges from mobility issues to mental disabilities. When you look at on-screen representation however you will find only 3.1% of characters are disabled. When you look at children’s television it’s less than 1%. Characters in children's TV and films that have a disability are more likely to be depicted as violent and more likely in need of rescuing. 

It has also been reported an estimated 95% of available roles are portrayed by talent without a disability. Movies have done a better job in this area. They are more likely to show individuals who are disabled in a positive light or authentic to their experience. TV is falling behind here with less disabled characters and less likely to be shown positively.

In a recent report University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that there’s been very little progress in disability representation. Since 2015, the number of popular movies including characters who are disabled has not increased. Speaking characters with disabilities has not increased either. With people with disabilities being consistently missing from movies and TV, what are disabled people looking for?

Many people with disabilities are seeking authentic representation in movies and tv shows. They want to see a character that’s gone through a similar experience or is at least accurate to their experience. You can see this from a Niesen survey that when a story or character shows disability, people with disabilities are 52% more likely than the general population to say the portrayal of their identity group is inaccurate.

If you’re looking for some positive portrayals to watch to get an idea of what the disability community is looking for you should check out the below:

1) Rising Phoenix (2020) - This is a documentary but still a great eye into the community

2) Margarita with a Straw (2014) 

3) A Beautiful Mind 

4) You're not You 

5) The Theory of Everything (2014)

Considering how large the disabled population is there seems to be a great opportunity to explore and uplift a group that experiences many roadblocks in their lives. Many people with disabilities have trouble getting around their neighborhoods, getting medical attention, or being pressured to stay at home. Without these stories in TV and movies, broader populations who lack exposure to these experiences may never know what it’s like to be a person with disabilities in the US.

Not only will the exposure help adults but it will significantly help children as well. Children who are disabled often don’t have people around them that look like, speak like, or process the world like them. With positive portrayals of characters we connect with it can positively impact our mental health and wellbeing. It will also expose children to people who are disabled so they can learn in a positive way what many of their peers may be going through as they grow up.

In order to create more authentic representation there’s a few tropes we can avoid. The first one is to avoid showing them as a source of inspiration. While there’s nothing wrong with being inspiring, if the only thing a person who is disabled is doing in the narrative is overcoming their disability to be an inspiration then you might need to reevaluate the placement of the character. The same goes for the other side of the coin, the trope of the victim. While there are additional challenges someone might experience being disabled it becomes a one-dimensional viewpoint if not explored beyond that.

Another thing we can do is show how diverse the disability community is. This is where intersectionality comes into play and can create multi-dimensional characters that can grip audiences. Also, hiring actors who are disabled will show the full spectrum of people in the disability community.

The effect of disabled representation in the media could seriously impact some of the barriers people who are disabled experience. While it won’t happen overnight, with proper education and understanding of the world we live in we could see better opportunities for people who are disabled and better healthcare options. 

You may be asking yourself “What can I do to help?” or “What comes next?”. The most important thing you can do is educate yourself more on these issues and share that information with others. Oftentimes movie characters with disabilities exist only to further the narrative of the typically able-bodied main character; it is important for the narrative to surround the character with disabilities, inclusive of the ups and downs of their normal day to day life that everyone has. So, get out there and learn!

While it might seem daunting, similar strides are being taken in the healthcare space. Rosarium Health has seen an opportunity to provide assistance to the ever growing disability community. By connecting individuals with home assessments plans for future home modifications we’re working towards a safer world where everyone’s included. Eliminating barriers is extremely important both in media but also in one’s physical life and physical space. Home modifications break barriers to safely access one's home. However, It does not eliminate the disability or illness, it creates peace of mind in one’s home. If you or a loved one is looking for assistance with creating that peace of mind check out our website here.

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