It’s no secret that media representation of the disability community is lacking to say the least. There are so few portrayals of us, and even less of persons of color with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals with disabilities, and other marginalized folx with disabilities. Even the type of disability is limited – for example non-speaking characters or characters who use assistive technology to speak are a rarity (although JJ DiMeo in NBC’s Speechless is a recent exception). In addition, certain types of disabilities are only featured as villains or background characters, a classic example being Disney’s Captain Hook. When featured as a protagonist, the focus is usually on the disability and the character ends up being used as a prop for “inspiration” like in The Good Doctor. The moral of the story is that representation of our community is rare and when we are included we’re a “feature” when we should be a staple.
Being immersed in advocacy work can be a blessing and a curse. I’ve become hyper-aware of the exclusion of my community, but that knowledge gives me the ability to speak up about it, Recently I’ve been reminded of this through some entertainment experiences. Specifically, two of my favorite shows have really let me down, not only because of the abysmal levels of representation, but also because there is such a great opportunity for inclusion.
It’s a show about a HOSPITAL. I know I’ve spent my fair share of time in places like Sacred Heart. However, the disabled characters are mostly sequestered to the background and often used for comedic content. Don’t get me wrong, I personally think disability can be funny, and I personally think it’s a good thing for everyone to be able to laugh at themselves and the tough stuff. However, that certainly shouldn’t be the only level of inclusion in a show when it comes to disability.
The one representation I found myself somewhat pleased with was the the character Jill Tracy. Jill is a character that recurs a few times throughout the show and seems to struggle with anxiety and other aspects of her mental health. She returns to the hospital feeling unwell and it is discovered that there are pesticides in her system. J.D. and Dr. Cox are puzzled and can’t figure out the reason for this. Finally, near the end of the episode, J.D. reviews their interactions in his head and realizes that Jill has a lot going on. He figures out that Jill took the pesticides herself because she is struggling. He and Dr. Cox catch her as she is leaving the hospital to offer their help.
As someone with mental illness and suicidal ideation, I appreciated the way that the character had trouble reaching out and the ways that she subtly did so through her actions. In my experience, it’s incredibly difficult to ask for help when feeling suicidal for fear of being a burden or feeling like you’re being weak.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
People with disabilities are twice as likely to face sexual abuse. This considered, it is not only negligent not to regularly include disabled characters in this show but it is harmful. There is not nearly enough information in the media concerning the epidemic of sexual abuse of people with disabilities, and ignoring the reality perpetuates the belief that it doesn’t happen. It happens all the time.
As a disclaimer, there is at least one episode in the series that focuses on a disabled character entitled “Disabled”. While the episode does bring up some important realities such as abuse by caregivers, but it is also a classic portrayal of the disabled character as mainly a “victim”.
Ready Player One
I recently saw this film and I really enjoyed it. It was a good sci-fi flick set in dystopian-ish future which I definitely have a weakness for, and it was mostly set in a video game which I felt made it really relevant. (It also features a favorite actress of mine, Emma Hughes) Unfortunately, I felt that there was a HUGE missed opportunity for a great disabled character. Most of the crew supporting the hero Wade Watts are only seen in cyberspace in the VR game OASIS until later on in the movie. In an everything-is-not-what-it-seems reveal, one of the characters turns out to be an 11 year-old kid and another turns out to be a woman, which is extremely contrary to both of their avatars. (The character H’s avatar is a super buff dude and it turns out that she’s Helen, a woman, not nearly as buff) I felt that this was a great opportunity for a strong disabled hero and I found myself initially even hoping that the protagonist might be disabled. When that didn’t turn out, I hoped throughout the movie that one of the supporting heroes would be disabled. The love interest did end up having a large birthmark on her face but the discussion of this was extremely surface-level, and the actress doesn’t even have a birthmark on her face in real life. Although her appearance made her unique in the movie, I found myself wanting more. The filmmakers had a real chance to do something pretty great here, and I felt they really botched it for the most part.
I know that this is being talked about within our community. For those of you who are keeping the conversation going, major props and thanks for motivating me to do so myself. We all need to make noise about this – we deserve to be seen and heard.
Some good stuff about this topic that helped me write this piece: