From Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump to Sam Worthington in “Avatar”, the idea of able-bodied actors and celebrities appropriating disability for roles, entertainment, or pure shock value is nothing new. Disability is often times the thing that pulls at the heartstrings of audiences and wins awards, such is the case with “Forrest Gump”, “Rain Man” and “Million-Dollar Baby” just to name a few, but while injecting disability into storylines seems to be a recipe for Oscar gold, it is often times extremely problematic.
In much of modern media, disability is used to tell stories of tragedy, unbelievable inspiration, or overcoming. These stories are written and acted primarily by able-bodied people with little to no understanding of what it actually means to live life as a disabled person. Disability is often used as little more than a plot device to demonstrate to able-bodied characters that their life could be worse, or to convince the audience that an able bodied character has a heart of gold because they are interacting with a disabled character, often presented to be undesirable. Disability is so often a vehicle to promote the stories of the able-bodied, and to demonstrate that the able-bodied life is the only life worth living, rather than being a beautiful story all on its own. So many of the stories involving disability are framed by a paradigm that believes you are better off dead than disabled; so many of these stories only find value in overcoming disability, not in living with it.
When disability is used for no other reason than to evoke feelings of pity, misplaced gratefulness, or even disgust from an audience, it is beyond problematic. It is problematic not only because of the way it teaches able-bodied people to view disability, but also because of the way it teaches disabled people to view themselves and their lives. When disability is never really given the opportunity to be shown as a valid real life experience, it becomes nothing more than a prop used to advance the idea that an able bodied life is automatically better than a disabled life. More than that, when actual disabled people aren’t even allowed on the screen, it perpetuates the idea that disability cannot be beautiful, and it’s only value on the screen is as a teaching tool.
When directors and writers and producers only feature disabled characters when disability is the focal point, it promotes the harmful narrative that disabled people must only be defined by what makes them different, rather than demonstrating that disability and impairment is only one part of a person, not the whole. When disabled characters are predominantly portrayed by able-bodied actors, it creates a representation based on stereotypes and false realities. It gives able-bodied people a false understanding of what it means to live as a disabled person, and it creates the worst kind of role models for young disabled people. When the only type of disability we tend to see on TV comes from an able-bodied fantasy, it takes away from the fact that disability is a unique valid and extremely diverse life experience. It turns disabled people into nothing more than a simple archetype. When disabled characters are predominantly portrayed in one episode storylines, rather than being made a recurring part of the natural diversity of a community, it turns disabled people into a prop , or a vehicle for character development, instead of real developed characters.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are shows and movies that feature actually disabled people, and integrate disability as a genuine, valuable part of the story, but as a general rule, disability is merely a plot device, or an afterthought, rather than a demonstration of the beautiful diversity in our world.
Representation is important because it has real effects on the way people experience the world. When disability is used as nothing more than a vehicle for shock value or pity, the real value of disabled life is ignored. When disability is shown as a fate worse than death, the beauty that can be found in the experience of disability is erased. Representation is important because it affects the way that people interact with disabled people in real life. The disability community is a beautifully diverse community, and that should be honored not washed over with the perceptions of able-bodied people.
Disability is not a prop to be used for shock value, and it is not something to be co-opted for pity or critical acclaim. It is complicated and beautiful, and it deserves to be treated as such. It is time to reclaim the narrative, it is time to show that disability is more than just a prop for able-bodied people to play with. It is time to flip the script, and let disabled people tell their own story.
This guest post was written by Karin Hitselberger. Karin Hitselberger is a twenty-something graduate student and freelance writer with Cerebral Palsy. She has bachelors degrees in communication studies and religious studies from the University of Miami, and is currently obtaining a Masters degree in disability studies from the University of Leeds in England. She blogs about life and disability issues at Claiming Crip, and the intersection of disability, fashion, and body acceptance at Ceepstyle Follow Claiming Crip on Facebook. Karin is on Twitter @karinonwheels