Disability And Pop Culture

Lack of Representation

inappropriate disability stock photo

Seriously, what is the purpose of that photograph? There were several other stock photos of that same girl, and in one she’s standing on the chair. What scenario could call for that photo? Is it a ‘look I’ve triumphantly overcome my disability and am at long last able to be a sexy, bookish model’ kind of thing? (Sexy was one of the keywords for the photo along with baby carriage for some reason.) I refuse to link to the other photos, but I’m sure you’ve seen many like it. Well not exactly like it, because it’s silly. What I mean is you’ve likely seen many pop culture images online or on tv of non-disabled people portraying someone with a disability. There’s been a lot of attention given to whitewashing in films, and rightfully so. But the opposite seems to be true of the portrayal of people with disabilities throughout pop culture. In fact, actors are likely to get nominated for an Oscar for their ‘brave portrayal’ of a disabled person ‘overcoming such adversity’. Is that right though?

For me, it’s hard to say. Would it be better if the role were played by someone with a disability or is their worth enough in drawing attention to those so often ignored? For a long time, there were almost no depictions of disability in popular media apart from the tragic anti-hero (think The Elephant Man or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Even looking at a show like Glee it’s hard to know where to stand between Lauren Potter, an actress with Down Syndrome and Kevin McHale, an able-bodied actor whose character is confined (in most scenes) to a wheelchair. Should we expect authenticity there though? It is, after all, a singing high school where all the teenagers look nearly 30.

It’s been this way for a while though. I (like probably many others) don’t think I had ever heard of autism until I saw Rain Man. Yes, there was the shortcoming that everyone assumed autism corresponded to being a card-counting savant, but it also increased visibility and funding for the disorder. Was it worth the publicity? Is that expecting too much? As for movies, should they only be viewed as entertainment and nothing more? I mean, I still love Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker and Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? but is the quality of a performance enough? It shouldn’t be, but we have to start somewhere.

Movies can have a powerful impact on society and can be culturally relevant. Even a commercial (i.e. Apple‘s accessibility spot with Sady Paulson) can be meaningful and impactful. It is starring and edited by a person with a disability as well as being marketed as a way to offer greater freedom for those with disabilities. This is a great example of people with disabilities being represented at all points of a project: design, creation, and target consumer.


Now that people with disabilities are being represented more frequently it’s important to make sure they’re being represented properly. That means we don’t want people with disabilities unfairly demeaned and made servile. I love the movie Avatar, but why is the fact that Jake Sully is in a wheelchair enough of a backstory to justify his suicidal self-loathing. I get it’s already a long movie and he’ll be inspiring later, but that’s some lazy writing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the sheer presence of a person with a disability attempting any sense of normalcy shouldn’t be considered inherently moving. Someone in a wheelchair can be a jerk in a wheelchair. When their mere existence is magical then it becomes inspiration porn. I know it can be a fine line between respect and exaggerated admiration, but having difficult discussions about groups of people whether it’s related to race, gender, or disability is all about getting close to those lines. The purpose here is not to ruin your (or some of my) favorite movies and tv shows. In fact, much of what I list here are movies I know because I have enjoyed watching them. It’s simply to make you aware of the stereotypes and tropes so you can be a more informed viewer.

Types of Misrepresentation

There are a number of ways people with disabilities are misrepresented in pop culture. Here are a few examples.

  • Magical Little People – There’s a long history of magical or other-worldly dwarves from Snow White and Fantasy Island to the work of David Lynch. Dwarf exploitation can be seen in the 1930’s films Freaks and The Terror of Tiny Town. In a modern context though you see a ‘dwarf-tossing’ meeting in The Wolf of Wall Street, which, to be fair, illustrates how horrible these characters are as they mention how dwarves are magically invincible and can’t be looked in the eye. It is wonderful that Peter Dinklage can elevate the perception of little people through Game of Thrones and powerfully portrays the struggle of an outsider in The Station Agent. But he also starred in Tiptoes which has as its premise, the idea that little people in your family are something to be ashamed of.
  • 29c90befe8a65cb00a751a4466c34cb2Disability Superpower – I must admit that I have enjoyed Daredevil in comic books and the new Netflix series (the movie stunk). The idea though that a disability leads to other enhanced abilities has lead to a number of stretched-out tropes. Maybe it’s the blind weapon master, the mad oracle, or the idiot savant. At least Geordi LaForge of Star Trek: The Next Generation made sense as he was enhanced by implants, but that doesn’t explain the enhanced abilities of Bran in GoT, Whistler in Sneakers, or Jimmy in The Wizard. Don’t even get me started on the super wheelchairs like in Wild Wild West.
  • Helpless Victim – This trope is directly opposite the superpower/handicapped badass trope. This is where the person with the disability obviously can’t care for themselves. Think of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol or the brutality inflicted on ‘victims’ in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Elephant Man.
  • zackattackSingle-Episode Disability – Hey let’s pretend we care about disability with a short-lived and trite moral lesson that we won’t have to discuss in future episodes. One of the worst examples of this can be seen in Saved By the Bell when the trashy Zack Morris is horrible in almost every way to a young girl in a wheelchair (who he met on a teen helpline!) and we were supposed to have learned something. We also see a textbook example in an episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye is temporarily blinded and empowered.
  • Evil and Depravity – God must have cursed you for some great wrong and that is why you suffer externally and must be equally twisted on the inside. Doesn’t that explain the cruelty of Captain Hook or villainy of Ephialtes in 300, he said sarcastically?
  • Eternal Innocence – It shouldn’t be surprising that people with Down Syndrome can be rude, angry, or curse at you. I’ve seen that first hand. So infantilizing people with cognitive impairments as being consistently happy and good is too simplistic. Forrest Gump is wonderful in showing his achievement, but the misunderstanding of Jenny’s father and Jenny’s feelings seems only to emphasize his supposed inability to function as a person. Similar innocent simplicity can be seen in I Am Sam and Edward Scissorhands.


We seem to be making progress, but some shows still seem off the mark. Atypical, in my opinion, seems to do for autism what Grey’s Anatomy does for doctors. And by that I mean it makes you say, “what’s the point of being doctors when all they seem to do is have unnecessary drama and make out.” There are no autistic actors or writers and it can seem like the main character with autism serves as the target of jokes for the show and characters in it. I like the Good Doctor, a show about a skilled surgeon on the spectrum, but it does get into disabled superpower territory when Dr. Shaun Murphy seems to go in a trance while complex visualizations tell us his ‘sixth sense’ is coming up with a solution. In the show, Shaun also seems to have learned almost no social coping skills in his 20+ years despite being skilled enough to make it through medical school.

To their credit, more and more network shows and movies are highlighting people with disabilities. Some do a better job than others, but that may be a good thing since a film or show doesn’t have to be award-worthy just because a disabled person makes an appearance. In one sense I guess that’s progress.

speechless_cast_still_h_2016For example, I have problems with the show Speechless, a show depicting the family of a teen with cerebral palsy played by an actor with the disease, on issues entirely unrelated to disability. I believe its based on the creator’s (a man with CP) true story that took place decades ago while the show is set in modern times. That’s why JJ, the main character, uses of a speech board and personal speaker though it makes little sense when he could easily have greater independence with a digital AAC device. It’s an issue the show only weakly attempts to answer. They continue to discuss increasing JJ’s independence but insist on keeping ‘his verbal sidekick’. Of course, that wouldn’t lead to the crazy hijinx that must inevitably ensue on a 30-minute sitcom. All of that could be fixed if they simply set the show in the 80s. To its credit, the show does address many of the tropes above head on though as well as the family’s shortcomings and JJ’s want to be viewed as something other than a symbol of inspiration.


People with disabilities were institutionalized and marginalized for many years, and Washington D.C. and Hollywood should lead the discussion the way America did with the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act.  I ‘m not entirely sure where we currently stand if mocking people with a disability gets shrugged off. I don’t know if our nation could again elect a disabled president as they did with FDR, but Bob Dole, who has an injured arm came close and Illinois recently elected Tammy Duckworth who has prosthetic legs.

People with disabilities in the media are even more prevalent. Regardless of whether you like the shows or characters Sheldon and Amy in The Big Bang Theory and Temperance Brennan in Bones are popular characters who are likely to be on the autism spectrum. Netflix documentaries like Wizard Mode give an even more accurate depiction of someone with autism. I enjoyed The Shape of Water and even though it’s hard to find the exact goals in so unusual a film it is clear that one major message was about how those who are different are often downtrodden, but we often don’t recognize their hidden strengths. The movie portrays several groups in the left to the margins of the 1960s including people of color, a gay man, most women, and Elisa, the mute lead character, who has (spoiler alert) inherent challenges like shouting for help when she’s nearly assaulted. At the same time, the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that her loneliness was not unique to her difference. She could express bravery and fear that were universally understandable even in a story about a mute woman and a fish man. The ABA program guide introduces a number of other tv characters on the autism spectrum while Iris Films gives a more complete list of examples of disability in the media.

513a448713992.imageMarlee Matlin who was one of the early pioneers who was told by some that “she only won an Oscar out of pity” still remains a force for disabled actors in the industry. Shows she has participated in like Switched at Birth star deaf actors and, for the most part, reflect the reality, be it made more dramatic, of people with hearing impairments. I’ve only seen it once, but it’s a positive change that Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, plays an investigative computer specialist on NCIS: New Orleans. We can see RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, wonderfully play Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad where his disability was one of the least interesting parts of the show (and I mean that as a compliment). The point is that actors with disabilities should be appearing in shows whether or not the disability is a prominent plot point.

1481909401739Yes, good has come from past portrayals by non-disabled actors playing cookie-cutter characters with disabilities even if it was only to bring attention to the issue. There are wonderful strong characters like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road whose missing arm is an occasional annoyance and an occasional advantage. Even animated films like How To Train Your Dragon can be a realistic and heartfelt (apart from the dragon) portrayal of disability in people (and dragons). Characters with disabilities should appear in normal situations as well and don’t have to be overcoming great odds to be relevant. We should seek to have the increasing number of disabled characters (generally a good thing) played by disabled actors (a better thing) in stories written and directed by people with disabilities (the best thing). Superfest, an international disability film festival is looking to do just that.


7 thoughts on “Disability And Pop Culture

  1. I find it interesting you liked “The Shape Of Water”. I’v seen a mix response for that movie in the disabled and able bodied reviewer communities.
    This is a very well written article which spells out in a nutshell why I as a disabled writer, write my own content for my own films about disability and cast disabled actors as the disabled characters. My newest film is “A Stroke Of Endurance” which you can watch in full online for free here http://cripvideoproductions.com/astrokeofendurance.php

  2. Very thought-provoking. Being a movie fan, I have seen many of the tropes and character types you overview. Good point about Breaking Bad’s simple inclusion of a disability without it being a focal point. Would love to see more shows and movies realize disabled people don’t need to be a plot point to exist in a movie or television show. I do disagree, a bit (or maybe with some variable to just pure exploitation), with viewing Freaks as an exploitation movie, per se. The horror is definitely honed to a higher point by including the sideshow actors, who were friends of Tod Browning. Audiences were definitely not into viewing the movie because of its primary actors and their disabilities, so if you were to view the movie as a commercial exploitation film, it certainly missed that mark.

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