The Portrayal of Disabilities in Media and Films

Or rather, the lack thereof. How can we watch films with misrepresentation?

By Olivia Montes

Elm Staff Writer

Washington College’s Sociology  Department hosted the event “CinemAbility: The Portrayal of Disability in the Media” on Monday, Oct. 28, in the Norman James Theatre, discussing the ongoing problems still facing actors with disabilities both on and off-screen.

While there has been an increase in the amount of representation in the last few years, there are still few portrayals of people with disabilities, let alone those that are accurate.

In television and films alike, characters with disabilities are thrust into one of two main storylines: a) a story of heroism, in which the character struggles to prove their own worth and value to their peers (particularly their able-bodied antagonists) or b) a story of pity, where the character is struggling to fit in and be accepted by their peers.

There’s also the problem of the individual plotlines written for these characters, with the three most common — the ‘victim of violence’, the ‘single episode’, and the ‘disability power’ — being repeatedly used in films and television series, if a disabled character is even featured or represented at all, to evoke feelings of sympathy and distress from the audience.

This is called ‘inspiration porn’, which, according to The Daily Beast’s Elizabeth Picciuto in 2017, in the words of comedian and disability activist Stella Young during a TED talk, is “the tear-jerking portrayal of disabled people that [as Young puts it] involves ‘objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people…to inspire you [and] to motivate you so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.’”

Another problem that exists is when and if characters with disabilities are portrayed on-screen, they are portrayed by those who do not have that disability in real life, leaving those in the audience outraged and frustrated that they are not included nor accurately portrayed on-screen.

According to a recent study by Ruderman Family Foundation’s “Disability Inclusion in Movies and Television” featured in Variety in 2019, in 2016, roughly “95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors,” bringing to light the reality of discrimination against not only characters with disabilities being accurately portrayed on-screen, but also the actors who don’t have the chance to play them.

“Many disabled roles still go to able-bodied actors, too. Sometimes this is necessary, as in roles that show gradual deterioration or unexpected recovery, or roles that call for a rare physical type,” The New York Times’ Alexis Soloski said in 2016.

“But most times, it isn’t,” she said.

As a part of the ongoing issues within Hollywood regarding the lack of inclusion both in front of and behind the camera, a diverse collective of representatives are coming forward to promote equal opportunities for everyone within the industry, including actors with disabilities, to receive the chance to tell a different kind of story that only they can tell to the world — including Jennifer Mizhari.

As Mizhari, the CEO and President of RespectAbility, a non-profit organization that advocates for mental and physical disabilities, discussed with VOX Media’s Abbey White in her 2017 article “How Can TV and Movies Get Representation Right?”, the expectations for accurately portraying a disabled character are a) if the character is played by an actor with that disability, and b) if that character doesn’t allow their differences to become excuses for their lack of determination or perseverance.

“The two [current] gold standards are the [ABC] TV show Speechless, which is scripted, and Born This Way, which is reality unscripted, and that’s because the leads are people with disabilities — played by people with disabilities — authentically portraying their lives,” Mizhari said.

“We see it as a success if an amputee is playing a police officer in an episode of Law & Order and you never talk about that person’s disability. All you see is an incredible police officer,” she said.

Audiences feel the same way; according to the Ruderman Family Foundation’s study, over 50% of audiences want to see characters with disabilities not only further portrayed and developed in the media but also accurately.

“Historically, able actors who play characters with disabilities have been rewarded for their performances with high box office returns, critical acclaim and even Academy Awards — but [the] study…shows that viewers are getting tired of the lack of representation for the disability community on screen,” The Los Angeles Times’ Christi Carras said in September 2019.

“Authenticity is the new frontier,” she said.

With these findings, the entertainment industry is taking steps towards reaching this goal of including everyone all while creating new stories to tell, keeping not only the people watching their productions come to life, but also those who have been undervalued and underrepresented for decades.

“[RespectAbility] feels very strongly that people with physical disabilities should be represented in every crowd scene,” Mizhari said. “If you want to be authentic and tell authentic stories, they need to be as people are in humanity.”

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