The portrayal of disability in the media

In my last article, I tackled the idea that disability is largely invisible, both in our day-to-day lives and in pop culture. In the last decade or so, visibility has somewhat increased in our media. The problem is, it’s not always positive representation.

When disability is shown in television, movies and books, it often falls into a few common tropes: inspiration porn, faking it, existing only in a binary and a hatred towards the disability.

Inspiration porn is the trope everyone sees but not everyone recognizes. Disability activist Stella Young coined the term, describing it as “an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary — like playing, or talking, or running — carrying a caption like ‘your excuse is invalid.’”

She continues that, “It’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective … It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think ‘Well, it could be worse … I could be that person.’”
While the intent of the producers of these stories and videos are mostly positive, it puts an odd spin on the day-to-day life of disabled people. Sometimes inspiration porn takes the part of a person doing something ordinary such as “overcoming” the disability by doing a task that most able-bodied people can do. The narrative displayed is “this one person can do this despite their disability, so I should too!”

The “despite” narrative implies disabled people are generally incapable, unless “despiting” their disability. The “inspirational” accomplishments of one person puts the burden of others with disabilities to push themselves to accomplishing the same thing.

On social media, videos circulate of little kids who were promised to never walk strutting their first steps. These accomplishments are major for those experiencing them, but not every person who uses a mobility aid can walk unassisted. Disabilities widely range even within the same diagnosis, and it’s not realistic to set the same expectation to everyone. Disabled people can’t and shouldn’t set the bar for activities at the same level as those without disabilities or those who doesn’t have the same limitations.

Just because one person who couldn’t walk can now run a marathon doesn’t mean that every person in a wheelchair should be able to “overcome” the inability to walk. And more than disabled people setting these expectations for themselves, people without disabilities shouldn’t set these expectations for others based on a viral video.

Another common trope I see is the disabled person was faking it all along. Munchausen and Munchausen-by-proxy (which is a syndrome that causes people to believe and cause conditions that they do not have, while by-proxy is caused by someone near them) are real conditions that require psychiatric and medical intervention. Representation of any disorder is a generally positive idea, but with the over-representation of this condition it implies that many people who have genetic or acquired health conditions might be otherwise causing harm to themselves.

One prominent example — other than TV doctor shows, which inevitably show Munchausen — that I’ve seen in the media in recent years is in the book and movie-adaptation of “Everything, Everything.” The young-adult romance centers around 18 year-old Maddy who has SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. Her mom keeps her in the disease-free bubble of her house.

Later in the movie, we find out that no doctor ever ordered any tests proving that Maddy was in fact immunocompromised. All along her mother kept her in the bubble of her house to make sure her daughter did not come across an untimely death due to the mom’s own fears. In the process, the mother lowered Maddy’s immune system, causing actual health conditions to arise.
Maddy and the audience do not find out that she does not in fact have SCID until the later third of the movie. With this snap realization, all of the representation of SCID turns into a narrative of “faking it,” delegitimizing all of the positive representation in the first place.

The “faking it” trope is one of the more dangerous phenomena. These stand-out cases in media have the chance to slant even doctors’ perceptions of disability. Skepticism leads to lack in belief of disabled peoples’ experiences, making doctors double or triple check your symptoms before listening to you. In the workplace and in education, it can cause a similar reaction when asking for accommodations.

Playing into the last trope is the idea that disability exists in a binary. People either are paralyzed, or they don’t need a wheelchair; people are either depressed, or are light and bubbly; people are blind, or they have near-perfect vision.

A statistic I’ve seen floating around the internet is that it’s estimated that 90 percent of wheelchair users have some function of their legs. These people are often “ambulatory,” or don’t need to use a mobility aid full-time. However, in television, movies and other visual media, wheelchair users are almost exclusively kept in their chairs.

While this trope might not sound as harmful, it perpetuates the “faking it” aspect in real life. I’m an ambulatory wheelchair user myself, which means I can walk short distances before needing assistance most days. For classes, I often transfer into one of the desks.

Because of this lack of representation of disability on a spectrum, people will often stare at my legs after I perform a task out of my chair. Media trains viewers that people either have no use or all the use on their legs, or that blind people can always see nothing at all, or that moods are stagnant. Like other intersectionalities of race, gender and sexuality, disability is a spectrum.

Hatred towards disability from the disabled person themselves is another common trope. Some of these are more subtle than others.

One subtler example is Artie in “Glee.” In one episode, Artie is seen dreaming about dancing out of his wheelchair. While this might be the experience of some wheelchair users, many actually see their chair or other mobility aids as empowering, helping them get to where they need. Wheelchair users effectively see it as their own legs.

And “Glee” isn’t the only one to use this trope. It’s an almost inevitable dream sequence for any character in a wheelchair, implying its inevitable for all disabled people to hate their disability.

A more extreme example is displayed in “Detective Pikachu.” Howard Clifford pushes the hatred to a new level: the disabled supervillain. Because of his extreme hatred toward his disability and how it limits him, Clifford decides he will take over Pokémon’s bodies to be able to utilize his body however he wants.

Not all disabled people harbor anger towards their bodies. Many celebrate their experiences as part of the diverse possibilities of life. Sometimes people are born with what they have and can’t see their life any other way; others grow into their disability but come to embrace their differences as part of the inevitable. Even those that do harbor some dissatisfaction most likely do not have supervillain motives to take over able-bodied people or animal-like creatures. Disabled people are complete people too, even with our differences and limitations.

Part of the perpetuation of these tropes and others is from the lack of representation in those that perform, write and produce media that features disabled characters. White people playing POC or straight or cisgender people playing queer characters is more and more seen as unacceptable, but many productions still don’t properly include disabled people in work about them.

A common saying for this lack of representation in media and in decisions around disability is “Nothing About Us Without Us!” People that don’t walk or roll a mile in disabled peoples’ lives don’t understand the nuances to disability. What they know about disability often results from the media they consume, which in turn is affected by these tired stereotypes of our lives.

None of this can change overnight. Ableism can be challenged in our media, but the viewpoints are not going to change until our views of disability change. The more we talk about these problematic representations, the more pressure media producers have to include ethical representations.
Disabled people deserve to be in diverse amount of genres other than sick literature that revolves around the disability. Disabled people deserve to be the lover in a romance, the hero in an action movie, the detective in a mystery. We deserve to be villains, but not just resulting from our “incompleteness.” Disabled people deserve to be the leads of more than their own lives.

Post Author: Madison Connell