The misrepresentation of people with disabilities by the media
“Stanger Things”, the Netflix-original science fiction thriller, captivated audiences throughout the summer. Dubbed as one of the hottest shows of 2016, the supernatural plot, heavy dialogue and lovable cast quickly garnered an impressive international fandom. Such sudden and unprecedented exposure is certainly overwhelming, but not wasted. Runaway star Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin Henderson in the hit series, recently opened up about his disability on the Johnathan Ross Show.
Gaten revealed that he has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic disorder that affects the growth of bones. “It’s a condition where you are born without your collarbones – I don’t have any,” he explains, “It affects your facial growth, your skull growth, it affects your teeth.” Due to his physical disability, Gaten was rejected from hundreds of roles despite his obvious talent and determination. Surely, those casting directors now regret their decisions and their inability to incorporate diversity into the cast.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new.
Disability and the media has a long-standing, complicated relationship to say the least. The two rarely coexist beyond stereotypical depictions that negatively influence society’s perception of disability. The media is not simply responsible for poor representation, but misrepresentation – televised exaggerations and silver screen caricatures that serves to further stigmatize people of disability. In fact, if one was to gather all roles portraying people of disability throughout mainstream film and television history, it would be a short research with miserable results.
In the early years of cinema, with the production of Tod Browning’s Freaks, people of disability and various genetic disorders were represented just as the title suggests: freaks. Disability was considered a ‘modern spectacle’, a physically manifested curse and the gateway to the mystical and supernatural. In short, people of disability were represented as strange things that were limited to interacting only with other stranger things usually in curious and frightening ways.
Such ideals persisted well into the 1960s. Despite the emergence of counterculture, the civil rights movement and women’s rights, people of disability remained marginalized. Although representation of disability evolved, it still perpetuated the notion that to be disabled was to be other. Indeed, people of disability were often portrayed to be hindersome to the productivity and advancement of ‘normal’ society.
Wait Until Dark, a 1967 psychological thriller, stars Audrey Hepburn as Susy, a young, newly blind woman who unwittingly partakes in an international drug trafficking scandal. Although Susy is written as a well-rounded character, it is her physical disability – not her emotions or actions – that ultimately propels the plot. She is constantly depicted in unrealistic situations of helplessness and fear that provokes annoyance rather than empathy from the impatient audience. The focus is further tightened on her accident and subsequent ‘illness’, emphasizing that the complicated situation could be avoided all together should she be seeing. Again and again throughout the film, disability is represented not only as a personal obstacle, but a damning and permanent social burden .
It took another twenty years before the Canadian Disability Rights Movement finally swept the nation. By the 1980s, disability issues had reached the general consciousness and public campaigns were held to include disability in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1986, the Movement compromised and settled for the Employment Equity Act. This small triumph soothed the majority and when the Act was suddenly overturned in 1995 under Premier Mike Harris, it garnered little attention. Thus, proper recognition remained a struggle well into the 2000s, as demonstrated through the emergence of detective television.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the hallmark of North American crime drama, often depicted people of disability as homeless, unreliable witnesses. People of disability served as the downtrodden mascot of underprivileged neighborhoods and the destitute backdrop of crime scenes. Disability was commonly used as a prop, a method of juxtaposing the intelligent and delicate nature of the investigation against the grotesque, the gritty and otherworldly. Strangely enough, with a moniker such as the Special Victims Unit, out of 17 seasons, only one episode was dedicated to a person of disability. Clearly, the 14% of hardworking and productive persons of disability are properly represented through contemporary media.
Although one cannot hold a television series as the cornerstone of the Disability Rights Movement, what we do know is that it greatly influences social and cultural thought. Frankly, the stigma that people of disability are freaks, burdensome and insignificant are spread and enforced through media. These stereotypes should be addressed seriously as they are the only attributes depicted throughout film and television history. Misrepresentation is just as detrimental as no representation, and perhaps even more so.
But one thing is for sure, the power of representation can easily be harnessed for good.
The true art of media is in its imitation of life, the way it dissects the world and pull from personal stories and universal experiences. Disability should not be treated as a character flaw or the catalyst for action and misadventure simply because it is not. Rather, disability should be represented free of tragedy, bitterness and shame. It should be an added layer to a multi-dimensional protagonist, not the core of a flat character – it should not affect their likes and dislikes, their sense of humor, and least of all their capabilities. Better yet, it should easily slip past the audience’s consciousness just as Dustin Henderson’s genetic disorder was a revelation for diehard fans.
Indeed, taking a page from the casting directors and writers of “Stranger Things”, representation for people of disability should start before production. It should start with an actor like Gaten Matarazzo who identifies as a person of disability. It should start with the idea that people of disability are individual and undefined by outdated beliefs; that they can lead with courage, charisma and determination. After all, stranger things have happened.