Representation of disability in the media is woefully low; less than 1% of the regular characters appearing on network television are disabled, and even fewer of those are actually played by disabled people. Cable is doing a little better, while film seems primarily interested in using disability as Oscar-bait.
Disability advocates are lobbying to change this, arguing that with an estimated 20% of the population living with disabilities, increased representation is key. More disabled characters provide more opportunities for a diversity of depictions and experiences, and for reaching nondisabled members of the public with information about disability.
Hand in hand with that go concerns about accuracy. Media and pop culture representations of disability are often poor reflections of what it’s actually like to be disabled, and critics are often ignored when speaking out about specific issues they identify in film and television. Advocates interested in increased representation also want to see good representation, and they’re fighting for more use of disabled consultants to increase accuracy and sensitivity.
Likewise, many advocates are concerned with the use of cripface, the hiring of nondisabled actors in disabled roles. In addition to increasing representation and accuracy, it’s critical to improve opportunities for disabled actors, like RJ Mitte (above) in Breaking Bad. Disabled actors have intimate experience with the reality of being disabled and can add more authenticity to their depictions as well as working with writers and producers to improve the representation of disability in film and television.
Nondisabled attitudes about disability are very much informed by exposure through pop culture, making the subject a critical issue. Ian Buckwalter recently opined at The Atlantic that “Feel-Good Films About Disability Need to Also Make You Feel Bad,” sparking irritated responses from disability advocates. The feel-good disability film is a troubled media trope as it is, but the suggestion that such films need to engage in pity porn to engage the viewer (and win an Oscar) is revolting. And it’s a revealing assumption about Buckwalter’s attitudes; he assumes that no disabled filmgoers exist, and thus that there’s no need for a media narrative about disability that differs from unrelenting tragedy.
He’s not alone in his assumptions, and the only way to change that is to expand the depiction of disability in order to change the way people think as they engage not just with media and pop culture, but disabled people in society. Groups like I AM PWD work to improve representation, accuracy and access in media and pop culture with the goal of shifting social attitudes about disability, working with disabled performers, activists, and allies interested in the cause.
Some traction is starting to develop, but progress is slow. Down syndrome has been showing up more frequently in film and television, for example, though disabled critics have rightly noted that Down syndrome is a disability that is extremely difficult to fake, meaning that creators don’t necessarily deserve kudos for casting actors with the condition in these roles. What would be more remarkable is a conscious decision to turn to disabled talent first for all disabled roles; as it is, the list of disabled actors in disabled roles is vanishingly low.
Will we see a shift in how disability is handled in pop culture, and, by extension, in society at large? A lot of disability advocates strongly hope so, looking forward to a day when disability is simply part of a character’s identity, rather than the sole defining aspect, and when disabled actors tread the boards instead of nondisabled people playing at cripface.
Photo Credit: Pop Culture Geek