Strolling down Wisconsin Avenue, I barely notice the young family passing me — that is, until their daughter abruptly stops and points at me. “Mommy, what’s wrong with her?” she asks, staring with a mixture of horror and fascination.
She was, of course, referring to the fact that I’m a wheelchair user. Though her inquiry was undoubtedly off-putting, upsetting and intensely othering, it is also a natural response from a child encountering something they have never seen before. However, adults aren’t much better — they just blatantly stare at me instead.
Our society has an acute problem with accepting the existence of disabled people. This problem has roots in today’s media landscape, which typically misrepresents or forgets disability. When nondisabled people have no frame of reference for how a disabled person looks, acts and lives, it’s natural that they interact with us inappropriately. By identifying and solving our current problems with disability representation, we can create a reality that is more accepting and inclusive.
In 2018, only 2.1 percent of characters on regular television broadcasts were disabled, while in reality nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population has a disability, according to data from GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This disparity leaves disabled viewers without role models to whom they can relate, which can lead to outright rejection of their disabled identity in a futile effort to fit with the nondisabled ideal they see on TV.
But it’s not just about the quantity of representation; quality matters, too. Although Hollywood’s disability representation remains as low as television’s, roughly half of Best Actor Oscars have been awarded for portrayals of disability or illness. This may sound promising, but 95 percent of disabled characters are played by nondisabled actors, a phenomenon known as “cripping up.” This, and the fact that such films are made without input from the disabled community, produces stereotyped, stigmatizing portrayals of how disabled people live.
The characters we do see reflected in the media are often molded into tired tropes that further contribute to the othering of disabled people. Media studies have found that disability is often incorporated as a lazy way to signal a host of unsavory character traits.
Perhaps most common is the pitiable and pathetic disabled character who exists either to convey another character’s charity or an emotional lesson for the audience. Think Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” or the protagonists in “Me Before You” and “The Upside.” In these movies, the disabled character is depressed and bitter because of his disability and believes his life isn’t worth living.
Whereas a normal love story would end happily ever after, in “Me Before You” the protagonist pursues medically assisted suicide so his lover can have a “normal” boyfriend — conveying the idea that disabled people are depressed, burdensome and can never lead full lives.
“The Upside” evokes the same stereotypes. The protagonist — once again a wealthy, white disabled man — has no will to live. He hires a care aide who, throughout the course of the movie, teaches him how to be happy. This portrayal implies that disabled people are inherently unhappy and require a nondisabled savior to show them the value of their lives.
On the other end of the spectrum lies the “super crip” stereotype, whose narrative is consumed by the pursuit of “overcoming” their disability. Characters, often athletes, find themselves injured or diagnosed with a disability but somehow defy their prognosis through hard work and sheer willpower, implying that a person must eliminate disability to achieve success. Such portrayals further stigmatize disability as a defect that needs to be overcome rather than a normal part of diversity that can be embraced.
Finally, another common trope is the disfigured villain whose disability is meant to signal that they are evil inside and out. The most classic example of this is Shakespeare’s Richard III, but recent incarnations include Darth Vader’s medical reconstruction, which was used as a device to convey his inhumanity, or Dr. Poison’s facial disfigurement that signals her sinister nature. Representations of disability as scary or malevolent further stigmatize and exclude disabled people.
Media representations of disabled people, in increased quantity and quality, are necessary to foment true acceptance and inclusion into broader society. The mere glimpse of a disabled person going about their daily life should not be so surprising that someone stops or stares. It’s time for our society to start reflecting that — on-screen and off.
Anna Landre is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Discussing Disability appears online every other Tuesday.