Redefining Disability in Literature, Television and Film
What is a Disability?
A progressive social scientist will tell you that “disability” is a socially constructed term. In other words, the meaning we attribute to disability is derived from our culture, not from the condition itself.
Some consider it punishment from God, or bad karma from previous lives. Others view it as a state of suffering, contemplating whether a life with a disability is even worth living. Yet other cultures embrace all human expressions and don't even have a word for “disability.”
In American culture, however, most people view disability as a (permanent) condition of physical or mental impairment. We associate it with pathology, weakness and inferiority. We look at people with disabilities with pity. Not only that, they make us uncomfortable.
But who among us is truly able? We all have limitations that can be considered disabling, and even if some arrogantly fancy themselves to be the paragons of perfection, time and frailty of the biological form will render us all "disabled" eventually.
That is why what we think of disability matters. The language we use to talk about disability matters. The books we read that teach us to hate, pity or fear disability matter. The films and TV shows that portray disability a certain way (or don't portray it at all) matter.
Because collectively, these cultural mediums shape how we perceive disability, how we treat people with disabilities, and how easily we, as a society, are led to believe that we - "us" - are different from "them."
Disability as a Prop
So what do most books or films that feature characters with disabilities have in common? They use disability as a prop.
Whether in literature, television or film, a character with a significant impairment is often regarded as a sidekick who helps to move the plot along, or someone who allows the main characters to "grow" by learning to accept the disability. That is the best case scenario.
In the not-so-rare worst case scenario, a character with a disability is used as a literary shortcut to creating someone different, abnormal, a.k.a. the archetype of the Other. When taken to the extreme, the Other becomes the Evil, and the disability becomes the mark of the beast so to speak, a symbol of congenital moral decay (think: Captain Hook).
Complex and realistic portrayals of characters with disabilities come by once in a Blue Moon, and they need to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Disabilities in Children's Literature
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to ensure that people with disabilities have the power (and the rights) to live their lives with integrity, without shame or prejudice that is so embedded in our disability-phobic culture.
However, pejorative attitudes toward disability still flourish, often undetected, on the pages of books, magazines, and most insidiously, in children's literature.
Children's literature shapes children's attitudes toward disability as adults.
But what happens if disability is not a part of children's education? After all, most children's stories feature healthy white, middle- to upper-class boys and their dogs. As a result, most kids with no academic platform for understanding disability are having trouble being kind and accepting of their differently abled peers. They also miss out on the opportunity to learn about diversity and respect for people different from them.
Disability in Films and TV Shows
When it comes to disability, films and TV shows are afflicted by the same issues as literature. Characters with disabilities are either non-existent, or they are a distorted, stigmatized minority meant to artificially thicken the plot.
Not only that, most characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors:
- Professor Xavier from X-Men,
- paraplegic Artie Abrams on Glee,
- paralyzed John Locke from Lost,
- Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July,
- paraplegic Stevie Kenarban from Malcolm in the Middle, and the list goes on and on.
It's so common that most people would not assume an actor portraying a disabled character to have an actual disability.
Cable television is more progressive. We have characters like Thor Lundgren from Nurse Jackie portrayed by Stephen Wallem with type I diabetes and a prosthetic eye, or Walter White Jr. from Breaking Bad portrayed by RJ Mitte who has cerebral palsy. They are both "normal" characters played by actors with disabilities.
And how can one forget Tyrion Lannister from the acclaimed neo-medievalist saga Game of Thrones? Nothing like the dwarf stereotype in a fantasy genre, Tyrion is known for his considerable intellect and hedonistic lifestyle. He accepts his fate philosophically, with artful profundity and sardonic wit. And he is no victim. As Peter Dinklage (the actor who plays Tyrion) says: Tyrion Lannister is "a complete human being. Shock!"
As with other cultural mediums, films and TV programs have to stop portraying people with disabilities as the Other or the Inferior. But glorifying disability is equally harmful. It creates unrealistic expectations that all differently abled people should perform at the level of "heroes."
Future Goals: Redefining Disability
Sometimes people avoid talking about disability out of fear of saying something wrong. On the other hand, it makes us uncomfortable because we don't want to be reminded of our own frailty. After all, disability is going to catch up with all of us at some point in our lives.
That fear and discomfort are ingrained in our culture.
However, disability is present in every corner of the globe. Literature, films and other cultural mediums have to reflect that.
And since people with disabilities come from diverse cultural backgrounds, books and films have to portray more women, more people of color, people of various sexual identities and orientations. So far, the most visible group of people with disabilities is white heterosexual males.
Quite simply, this has got to be a core media objective: educating people about the incredible variation within the spectrum of disability, dispersing the myths and helping us to not only understand disability better, but also to recognize the validity of every human experience.
© 2017 Lana Adler