Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Guest post: Pop culture is showing a welcome shift in portrayal of people with disabilities

Photo of Emily Lund
By Dr. Emily Lund
Post-doctoral Fellow, Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Boston University
2016 Robins Award Winner, Graduate Researcher of the Year, Utah State University

“Sport doesn’t care who you are,” a 2012 advertisement for Samsung announces, showing video of Paralympic athletes doing pushups, lifting weights, swimming laps, and otherwise training intensely for the upcoming games. The ad is one of many that has come out in recent years from Olympic sponsors, promoting not just able-bodied athletes, but their often-under-recognized Paralympic peers. During the 2016 Olympic games, it was not uncommon to see Paralympians like ten-time wheelchair racing medalist Tatyana McFadden featured alongside Olympians in ads supporting Team USA. As the 2016 Paralympic games start in Rio, increasing recognition, public interest, and media coverage is being given to Paralympians.

Also encouraging is the increasing acknowledgement in the media that Paralympic athletes are just that—world-class, talented, and extremely hardworking athletes. The inspiration narrative of the coverage is shifting from one that focuses solely on impairment to one that acknowledges the extraordinary skill of these competitors.

The increasing and changing media coverage of the Paralympic games in recent years represents a shift, however gradual, in how disability is represented in the media. Historically, people with disabilities have often been portrayed in a one-dimensional manner, seen solely as objects of pity or passive inspiration. Telathons portrayed children with disabilities as people who were incapable of living a good, rich, and meaningful life, and TV shows often cast characters with disabilities for “special episodes” where the person with a disability existed only to teach the main characters a touching life lesson and then to disappear again.

Quote: Historically, people with disabilities have often been portrayed in a one-dimensional manner, seen solely as objects of pity or passive inspiration."
Lost in these portrayals was an acknowledgement of people with disabilities as complete people, with rich and varied hopes, dreams, and experiences. Much like the narrative of Paralympic games, that is now changing, as characters with disabilities become more dynamic parts of the television landscape.

The new ABC comedy, “Speechless,” which premieres September 21, focuses on the life of a teenage boy with cerebral palsy, JJ DiMeo, and his family. The ads for the show don’t sugarcoat the experience of disability—JJ’s mother is shown fiercely advocating for her son’s rights to full inclusion in a public school—but they don’t shy away from portraying JJ as a full person, one who is opinionated, adventurous, and very much a teenage boy. He is shown to be as much of a complex and involved character as any other one in the pilot, despite the fact that he is non-verbal and uses a letter board to communicate. Rather than being someone who merely watches the action unfold, JJ participates in it actively. He is more than a plot point—he is truly a part of the narrative.

“Speechless” represents one example of the new disability narrative that is seen on television. Another such example is the popular HBO show, “Game of Thrones,” which features Tyrion Lannister, a man with dwarfism, as a main character. Throughout the show, Tyrion is given substantial character development, both positive and negative, and while his disability and other people’s reactions to it are an important part of the narrative and his character, he is very much portrayed as a dynamic, complex, and complicated character. Although “Game of Thrones” and Speechless” are very different shows that are aimed at very different audiences, they both represent the increasing willingness of writers to embrace disability and characters with disabilities as central aspects of their shows.  Additionally, both Tyrion—played by the Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage—and JJ—played by relative newcomer Micah Fowler—are portrayed by actors with disabilities, thus embracing the “nothing about us without us” aspect of the disability rights movement.

Similarly, the Emmy-nominated reality TV series, “Born This Way,” on A&E follows the lives of seven young adults with Down Syndrome. Their experiences of disability definitely influence the narrative of the show, but much of what the subjects experience—questions of love, friendship, family, school, and work--is familiar to anyone who’s gone through young adulthood, regardless of disability status. In their willingness to show people with disabilities as fully human, these portrayals allow people with disabilities to be active participants in their own stories.

The changing portrayal of people with disabilities in the media, be it Paralympic athletes, characters in scripted TV shows, or reality TV stars, invites the public to see people with disabilities as people whose stories should be told in full. Furthermore, it allows people with disabilities and their family members, both as participants and viewers, to be part of a richer, more complete conversation about what it means to live with a disability.

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