Disability representation in media

Disability representation: AI Generative Illustration of a vintage analog television with lamp beside it on color background in 70s style

Has genuine disability representation in the media changed? | Photo credit: ©supermelon / Adobe Stock

Disability representation in media

The state of disability representation in media

When I asked my Facebook friends to name characters showing disability representation in the media, they mentioned a diverse range from Artie on "Glee" to Tyrion from "Game of Thrones". Given these examples, one might assume the media adequately represents disabled people.

But what do we mean by "disability representation"? Does it solely revolve around numbers? Disability representation in the media goes beyond tallying characters. It delves into the accuracy of portrayals, the breadth of perspectives, and whether these portrayals sustain negative stereotypes. Quality matters, not just quantity.

"Disability representation that is truly inclusive and not from the nondisabled lens is so fleeting that we suspect that even most disabled people don’t even know what good representation is."

Ashtyn Law and Dom Evans

A stark reality is that only about 1% of characters on television openly identify as disabled, as per the 2011 "Where We Are On TV" report by GLAAD. This concerning statistic reveals just a fragment of the issue. When it comes to intersectionality, the numbers are equally concerning: "Of the 101 LGBTQ characters counted on broadcast TV in 2022, GLAAD
only counted three (three percent) with a disability."

Rooted in Rights reported in June 2023 that white cisgender disabled males dominate disability representation in the media, accounting for 40% of the total, outpacing combined representation of Black disabled characters (18%) and Indigenous and People of Color (16%). The portrayal predominantly revolves around categories like addiction, chronic disability, and mental health. However, certain disabled communities, such as those with blindness, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, dwarfism, and intellectual disabilities, remain underrepresented.

Ashtyn Law and Dom Evans, in the same Rooted in Rights article, reported that in a recent two-year study, characters with addiction numbered 289, whereas those with intellectual disabilities were a mere four. While a total of 1,342 disabled characters might seem substantial, a deeper dive reveals that many of these are fleeting, one-off characters, not significant leads or supporting roles. Moreover, the prevalent practice of disabled mimicry—where non-disabled actors portray disabled roles—further dilutes authentic representation. It emphasizes the importance of genuine casting and storytelling in the media.

Beyond the noticeable racial and gender imbalance, many of these characters revolve around stereotypes of "overcoming" disabilities or serving as inspirations. Being inspirational isn't inherently negative, but if that's their sole narrative purpose, there's a flaw. A test: replace a disabled character with an able-bodied one. If the character lacks a personal story, goals, relationships, or interests, it signifies poor disability representation in the media.

"Switched at Birth" exemplifies positive disability representation in the media. Featuring many characters with hearing impairments and even airing an entire ASL (American Sign Language) episode, the show stands out. One of the leading characters has a hearing impairment, yet her narrative isn't solely about her disability. She's a student, an athlete, politically active, and aspires to be a chef. She holistically represents a disabled person, not defined merely by her deafness.

However, there are counterexamples like "Glee". Despite its claims of diversity, it sometimes falters in disability representation in the media. Consider Artie, a student using a wheelchair. Instead of embracing his unique situation, the writers create a dream where he dances as an able-bodied individual. This misrepresentation suggests that happiness for those with disabilities equates to being "normalized" or "cured".

For authentic and comprehensive disability representation in the media, we must depict realistic experiences of those with disabilities. It sets the stage for genuine conversations about disability and establishes relatable characters. In doing so, film and TV can shift societal perceptions, challenge stereotypes, and foster understanding.

The need for authentic portrayals and genuine voices in the media

From the perspective of characters and storylines, the importance of disability representation in the media is evident. However, delving deeper, it's the very actors portraying these roles that play a pivotal role in shaping perceptions and narratives about disability. Authentic portrayals not only challenge disability stereotypes but also pave the way for richer storytelling, shedding light on the intricate fabric of lived experiences.

Even with numerous disabled characters appearing in media, we don't necessarily achieve robust disability representation. We need to examine these portrayals closely, considering the significance of roles played by actual actors who are disabled. As a dedicated TV and film enthusiast, I've observed that actors without disabilities typically portray these roles.

The series "My Gimpy Life" stands out, as its star also wrote it, delivering a nuanced and authentic perspective on the character.

Some producers argue that a shortage of disabled actors limits their options, compelling them to hire actors without disabilities. Why does this actor deficit exist? Multiple factors contribute, but a significant challenge is the difficulty actors with disabilities face in establishing their careers. Limited role opportunities compound their struggle, as they compete with both disabled and non-disabled peers.

Why can't non-disabled actors play disabled characters? Firstly, without genuine disability insight, portrayals can easily misfire. An evident misstep is when a character unnecessarily uses a hospital wheelchair outside a medical setting, inadvertently medicalizing disability.

Christine Bruno, co-chair of I AM PWD, stated, "The lived experience of disability isn't a mere technical skill. Disabled actors present authentic portrayals rooted in their unique life experiences, enriching our society's understanding."

Secondly, if our society champions diversity, our media should reflect it. True diversity avoids situations where, for example, white men exclusively fill writing rooms, sidelining diverse voices.

Thirdly, television and films shape perceptions. Negative stereotypes impact society's collective viewpoint. Studies like Gerbner's cultivation theory highlight how media can shape beliefs. Perhaps the media can best counter pervasive societal stereotypes.

"True disability representation in the media isn't just about numbers or appearances; it's about authenticity, genuine voices, and breaking down stereotypes for a richer narrative."

Disabled actors are indeed present in media. "Switched at Birth" stars actors with hearing impairments, including the celebrated Marlee Matlin. "My Gimpy Life" showcases Teal, an LA actress using a wheelchair, depicting her real-life auditioning, dating, and accessibility challenges. Then there's Peter Dinklage, known for his role in "Game of Thrones" and his casting in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" as a character not disabled in the original comics.

More recently, the 2021 Apple TV+ film “CODA broke barriers when it won the 2022 Oscar for best picture, but so far, there hasn’t yet been a flood of similar films. 

Hollywood should be more inclusive. Roles, even those not originally envisioned as disabled, could be filled by disabled actors. These characters deserve comprehensive development, much like their non-disabled counterparts, to genuinely advance disability representation in the media and dismantle stereotypes.

Disability encompasses a vast spectrum of experiences and cultures, often misunderstood by those without disabilities. When actors with disabilities tell and enact these stories, audiences receive a rich, genuine portrayal. These narratives should not trivialize or oversimplify the experiences but illuminate the intricate realities that shape these characters.

Disability Representation in Media has been updated and adapted from Disability in the Media first published in 2014 by Do-It, University of Washington. It is republished here under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 License and in accordance with UW's privacy policy and terms of use.