Let’s Talk Ableism: Disability Representation in Media

Disability Equality

Disability Equality

I’m Jess and I’m one of Breakthrough’s newest members! If I haven’t shared it with you already, I’m the sibling of two Autistic brothers and I actually found Breakthrough by coming to speak at a Sibshops session last year! I now am happy to have the opportunity to be a more formal part of Sibshops and contribute to Breakthrough in other ways! Speaking of, I decided to start a small column in the Newsletter to share some of my passion and knowledge regarding anti-Ableism and Disability Justice. I am happy to share that information with you in this blog post as well! It’s something that I think is incredibly important to learn about, and more so for me personally as I get older and find myself in a position of being even more of an advocate for my brothers who are directly affected by Ableism every day.

I know I am not alone in this and have been happy to have some conversations with our Sibs at Sibshops on this very topic! For example, something that often comes up in Sibshops is discussion around the “stigma” towards individuals with disabilities and how painful it can be. Validating this pain is incredibly important! As a sibling, we grow up loving our sibling unconditionally as we should. We see them for their wholeness, their beauty, and their individuality. However, we receive conflicting messaging from society around Disability that can be incredibly confusing. Because it isn’t often something that we openly speak about and deconstruct, that Ableism is often internalized in us and our relationships in some pretty harmful ways. Therefore, I have found an incredible sense of empowerment around knowledge on the topic of Ableism and how we can deconstruct it as opposed to uphold it. I find it also gives me a light to look towards in making the world a kinder place for Disabled people and ultimately, my family! I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I am enjoying writing it! I also invite you all to suggest me topics, ask questions or share ideas on anything you might like to see discussed going forward.

Recently in Sibshops, we were discussing the importance of combatting stigma and Ableism with education regarding Disabilities and Disabled experiences. We posed the following questions to the group, “Do you feel you see accurate representation of Disabilities in media? Have you seen your sibling/family’s reality reflected on the screen?”. It was no surprise that most of our Sibs couldn’t remember the last time they saw Disability being represented in media, or if they had ever seen it represented before… because it just isn’t something that is normalized, unfortunately. We could all agree however, that Sibs think a lot of people would react more appropriately to their siblings and other Disabled people if it was something that was normalized in mainstream media! It was fun to then lead and share in conversation about what exactly that media representation should look like. (as told by people with disabilities leading this movement, of course)!

Disability advocates promote the idea that Disability media representation should be centering Disabled people and their experiences, where disabilities are spoken about matter of factly. What often happens in movies, TV, etc. is that Disability and people with disabilities will be tokenized to enhance a story. The story then becomes about their disability and not about the actual character and ALL of their human experiences. For example, these characters will often exist to teach us a lesson about bullying, to provide emotional depth for other able-bodied/neuro-typical characters, to encourage inspiration or pity, or to warm our hearts and open our minds. And although Disabilities do present challenges that can teach powerful lessons for the individuals who experience them as well as their families, loved ones, and all who are touched by their lives, we know that Disabled people live lives and have stories that are worthy and deserving of telling in their entirety. We would like to see it on the screen, please!! And what can be even more harmful is that TV and movies will often cast Disabled characters as villains; depicting mental illness and other physical impairments as “evil” and something to be feared. Finally, one other important piece to note in advocating for accurate media representation is that whenever possible, Disabled people should be playing Disabled characters, which is often not the case!

This is an incredibly important and nuanced topic that is constantly evolving and I am looking forward to continue to be engaged in. I hope you will join me in support of the idea that Disabled people deserve to be centered and represented in the media we consume, and that we can advocate for that together! And even more importantly, that we can continuously listen to and amplify the voices of Disabled people at the heart of this advocacy work.

TV

I have complied a short list of some shows below that feature Disabled characters in a way that tells their story with dignity and humanity.

Please note that these TV shows vary in their level of appropriateness for different age groups and I recommend that you do some personal research before watching with your family. Please also note that these may not be perfect representations, and a lot of these characters from the live action TV shows/movies are not played by individuals with Disabilities themselves. However, I hope that this article and these recommendations can prompt some meaningful and important conversation with you and your loved ones! Happy Watching!

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender (Features a blind character)
  • Sesame Street (Character, Julia, is Autistic)
  • Goldie & Bear (One of the main characters is a wheelchair user)
  • Pablo (A show about a young Autistic boy)
  • Punk (Features a character with Down Syndrome)
  • Raising Dion (A show about a young boy who’s best friend is a wheelchair user and has a genetic condition)
  • The Healing Powers of Dude (Features a boy with Anxiety starting high school with his service dog)
  • Speechless (One of the main characters has Cerebral Palsy)
  • A Quiet Place (One of the main characters is Deaf)
  • Atypical (A show that centers a teenage boy with Autism)
  • The Society (A show that centers a character who is Deaf)
  • Special (A show that centers a character with Cerebral Palsy)
Jess Kruger
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