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Edited by: Rianna Lobo

Often while consuming media, we shrug it all off as entertainment. However, we might take in actions we see subconsciously, and these might create harmful portrayals of people, just the way it does for people with disabilities. We take in stereotypes, words, and phrases shown in media without realising its harmful effects on people with disabilities.

Portrayal of Disabilities in Media

While at least 15% of the world’s population are people with disabilities, only 3.1% of actors on TV have a disability. The media often also puts forth a false appearance of people with disabilities, usually ending in one of the following stereotypes.

The Villain

Throughout history, forms of media have drawn strong links between disabilities and evilness. More recently, characters have been shown to be motivated by crime or violence due to resenting their disability. Examples of this are Captain Hook, Shakespeare’s Richard III, many of James Bond’s arch-enemies. It is also not uncommon for the villain to have a mental illness and a particular tendency towards violent crime. 

Some disabilities receive particularly poor representation since mental illness has frequently and disproportionately been linked in programmes with violent crime, even though there is no evidence to support this incorrect portrayal. An example of this is Joker, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who is said to have schizophrenia. While people are constantly advocating for mental health to be destigmatised, these portrayals can cause a harmful viewpoint. Often, people and the media fail to understand that most people suffering from mental illnesses are victims of violence, not the perpetrators. 

The Superhero

On the extreme opposite of the scale from ‘The Villain’ stereotype is the Superhero, an inspirational character who is heroic or extraordinary because of their disability. Often with the loss of one ability, another becomes enhanced. An example of this is Matt Murdock from Marvel’s Daredevil, who is blinded by a radioactive substance, and while he can no longer see, his senses are heightened, giving him a ‘radar sense’. This stereotype is also often found in video games, such as Mortal Kombat. 

While this might seem more positive than the rest, it’s still inaccurate and can be patronising. It focuses on the individual actually overcoming their disability and presents disability as a challenge. It also helps the audience feel better about the hero’s disabilities, reinforcing the idea that it can be overcome if the person “tries hard enough.”

The Victim

The Victim is the stereotyped character whose disability which is often combined with an endearing personality is used to gain the audience’s sympathy rather than their genuine concern. Instead of being seen as a person, they end up appearing as a pitiful, helpless person. Examples of this are Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. 

This entirely negative view of disabled people appears regularly in the news media—both on television and in the press. There has been well-publicised concern among the disabled community about the tactics used by charitable organisations and movies to depict disablities. However, despite this, they continue to portray disabled people as pitiable and recruit able-bodied people to play disabled characters. Some of these tactics include portraying people with disabilities, frequently children, in hospitals, exploiting people with disabilities by using them as ‘material’ for their content. Some even go as far as to call themselves, ‘a hope in hell.’ These further enforce the stereotype that people with disabilities have to be taken care of and pitied, and that they can never be happy till they’re freed of their disability. Both of these statements perpertuate false stereotypes.

An example of a charity organisation that does this is ‘The Multiple Sclerosis Society.’ It includes a number of cinema, TV, and newspaper ads showing stark black and white images of what are generally attractive, young people with parts of their bodies torn out to symbolise impairment. The sense of tragedy is enhanced by the absence of colour, synonymous with suffering, and the deliberate contrast between ‘beauty’ and ‘flaw.’

The portrayal of people with disabilities by able-bodied people is often described as being ‘sympathetic’ to disabled people. This implies that sympathy is what people with disabilities are seeking from those without disabilities and that it is the best they can hope for in a filmed depiction of their lives. This also suggests that the disabled community cannot speak for themselves through their own actors, but must depend on able-bodied characters to speak on their behalf instead. 

The Butt of the Joke

This stereotype creates characters who provide them with a way to get laughs. The comedy series ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ is an example of this stereotype. A sketch in the series ‘The Ministry of Funny Walks,’ showed two or more of the Python stars wearing ill-fitting clothes and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads while muttering meaningless statements in slurred, loud and monotonous voices. This stereotype is cruel and disgusting, but common.

Disabilities affect lives daily, whether it be in big or small ways. On one side, this stereotype undermines the few opportunities people with disabilities have to be taken seriously by people without disabilities. It also has the capacity to affect their self-confidence and esteem. On the other side, however, some comedians with disabilities are now redressing this balance — by using their performances to poke fun at themselves while raising awareness about disabilities in a humorous but respectful manner.

A Study of the Family Film Industry

A study done of the family film industry brought a continuous high for leading characters in 2019. 8% of family films featured a lead with disabilities. Moreover, positive depictions of people with disabilities in the workplace were presented, where they were shown as hardworking, in STEM careers, and as leaders.

While there are positives, this is not close to the representation we hope for. Characters with disabilities are more likely to be rescued (34.3% compared to 20.6%). Moreover, they are 20% more likely to die compared to 11.7% of other characters. Over one in five (22.9%) of the characters with disabilities believe they need to overcome their disability. 8.6% of characters with disabilities become villains, feeling overcome by their “sufferings”. 

Along with representation that solely aims at creating sympathy towards disabled people, these storylines in family films often reinforce the idea that people without disabilities are somehow superior or the ‘norm’. This creates a narrative showing disabilities as something to be “overcome” rather than as a regular part of their lives. Moreover, it glorifies those with disabilities that live a “normal” or “successful” life. The report also stated that such representation supports the notion that overcoming is a matter of personal character rather than highlighting institutional or structural barriers that can make it more difficult for those with disabilities to have the same resources and opportunities.

The portrayal of disability can either change attitudes or reinforce them. Despite some improvements, the portrayal of the disabled community has been misrepresented. This has some serious implications, one of them being able-bodied people accepting this to be the reality of disabled people. Due to this, people with disabilities encounter serious discrimination based on attitudes, perceptions, and a lack of awareness. 

How Do We Identify Good Representation?

One aspect of good representation is that the focus is on the person, not the disability. If the character were replaced with an abled one, without changing any other aspects of the story, would they have a story, goals, relationships, and interests? For it to be considered good representation, the answer would be “yes”. While a disability might be a significant part of a person, it is not the only characteristic that shapes them. 

One example of good representation in the media is the movie, A Quiet Place, a 2018 movie directed by and starring John Krasinski. The plot revolves around a family who struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind extra-terrestrial predators with an advanced sense of hearing. The majority of the film is subtitled as the characters communicate using the American Sign Language, adding to the film’s suspense and horror.

Millicent Simmonds plays the role of the daughter, Regan. Regan is deaf and wears a cochlear implant, suggesting that the family is well-versed in American Sign Language (ASL). Simmonds is deaf herself; she helped her colleagues to learn sign language, encouraging authenticity of the use of ASL in the film. 

Respectful Disability Language: What Should You Avoid?

Often, people talk in a manner that proves to be disrespectful to people with disabilities. This might be intentional, or they might simply not know. Regardless, it is essential to correct someone to ensure a safer and more inclusive environment. Here are some general changes you should make to your vocabulary —

  • Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. Don’t ask them, “What’s wrong with you?” Moreover, don’t refer to them by their disabilities, such as “the girl in the wheelchair.”
  • When talking about places with accommodations for people with disabilities, avoid the terms “disabled” or “handicapped.” Instead, use the word “accessible” — for example, an accessible parking space, not a disabled or handicapped parking space.
  • Take out the words “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “cripple,” “retarded,” or “special needs.” Use the term “disability,” and if you have to refer to a person, then use “person with a disability.”
  • If you are talking to a person with a disability, it is okay to use words or phrases like “disabled,” “disability,” or “people with disabilities.” Nevertheless, ask the person you are with about which term they prefer and are comfortable with.
  • When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to use the phrase “people without disabilities.” However, do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.” These terms can bring about the notion that there is something wrong with people with disabilities and that they are abnormal, which they aren’t.

As an able-bodied person, I wouldn’t like to be defined with words that I don’t associate myself or my abilities with, so why is it assumed that people with disabilities would be? If society is going to become more inclusive, we need to pay more attention, eliminate any derogatory language, and ask for better representation in media. 

Tackling the negative perceptions of individuals with disabilities in the media can be overwhelming, but it’s not just you who can tackle it all. An individual makes small steps by working on themselves and helping the people around them. Moreover, by questioning, advocating, and pointing out, you correct your and others’ vocabulary and aid in dispelling false stereotypes.  With more and more people improving on their knowledge and trying to make society an inclusive place, we can come closer to achieving parity. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Kaavya Azad

Manipal '24

an architecture student whose life revolves around anime and books
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