By Michael Rock
As the importance of diversity in media is increasingly recognized, there are still challenges regarding representation of people with disabilities.
About 15% of the global population has a disability. This segment is more likely to live in poverty and experience social exclusion than those without disabilities. Proper media representation can play a crucial role in helping people shatter stereotypes of a given group, and those with disabilities are no exception.
According to a recent report, Hollywood’s depiction of disability is far from ideal. The presence of characters with disabilities suggests that it is less common than in reality. The roles for such characters are also heavily limited in what they do.
More often than not, media representation of people with disabilities is depicted in two different, but equally problematic ways. The first of these is the tendency to depict them as in desperate need of cures or charity in order to have a happy and meaningful life. In contrast, people with disabilities are also often depicted as “inspirational” for doing the same things as their non-disabled peers, often with condescendingly hyperbolic language in the stories that chronicle them. The latter depiction often overlaps with the idea that people with disabilities have “superpowers” to compensate for their deficits.
Despite the challenges of representing people with disabilities in cinema, television has made a number of developments in terms of this representation. Some, such as ABC’s Speechless, may be imperfect in how they depict major characters’ disabilities, but they find a way to do it in a way that can be relatable and sometimes even humorous.
Still, it is relatively infrequent for actors with disabilities to be casted as characters with disabilities. In an attempt to address this inequity, Yale School of Drama and the Ruderman Family Foundation have partnered to declare Jessy Yates, an actor and comedian who has cerebral palsy, the inaugural recipient of a yearly scholarship for $50,000 plus a living stipend for performing artists with disabilities.
Once a year every fall, Los Angeles hosts the Media Access Awards, to celebrate those in the media industry who cast people with disabilities and depict them on screen.
For those on the business side of media, several organizations organized a series of summits collectively called “Lights Camera Access 2.0.” There, job hunters with disabilities interested in the media industry saw guest speakers, networking opportunities, resume reviews, and speed-interviewing workshops.
As media depictions of people with disabilities become more commonplace and accurate, they ought to help combat negative stereotypes. Only by addressing these stereotypes can we fully include them into every area of society.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.