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Positive Images of People with Disabilities in Entertainment and Media

February 6, 2012  |  AAPD Power Grid Blog Team

by Leah Katz-Hernandez, AAPD Youth Transitions Fellow


“Have you heard about Red Tails?”


The movie being released this year about the heroic Tuskegee pilots brings up an important, under-discussed part of the American entertainment world: Positive images of minority communities on a large platform, such as the movies, the television, and the media. I’m going to talk about how important it is to have positive images of people with disabilities in media. This is different to consider than the stereotypical representation of people with disabilities in media.

People with disabilities do exist in our public consciousness, but are the images portrayed positive ones? And how harmful are these misleading images to the collective awareness of us as individuals, a community, and truth? Let me present a few examples throughout history:

One of William Shakespeare’s greatest villains is Richard III. His twisted, misshapen body represents the evil that lurks inside him. This evil cannot be removed from him and neither can his disability be disassociated from the character itself.

The popular children’s book “Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgsdon Burnett, tells a story of a boy who is too sick to be taken outside and is a wheelchair user. In the end, the boy is standing up and walking on his own – his disability has disappeared!

Characters with disabilities in the mainstream cinema have flourished. This list includes such disabilities as schizophrenia, autism, physical, and sensory disabilities seen in major films. Some of these films have respectful, accurate portrayal of disabilities (Frida) while others fall back on stereotypes and clichés (Unbreakable portrays the strong man as the good guy and the character with ostegogenesis imperfecta is shown as the arch-villain).

As of 2012, we have seen increasing number of characters with disabilities on the small screen. Shows have moved beyond just merely having characters with disabilities such as Dr. Al Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (portrayed by Robert David Hall) to actually incorporating disability into the major storyline such as deafness in Switched at Birth (featuring Sean Berdy and Katie Leclerc).

With the “positive” fact – that there are more images of people with disabilities than ever before, there is also the “cautionary” fact – that those images may be inaccurate and contribute more to the mislabeling of people with disabilities than to their full acceptance and inclusion.

Deaf people don’t always know how to lipread and blind people don’t always identify people by touching their faces. People using wheelchairs don’t suddenly stand up at a particularly emotional moment of their lives. People with autism do not have magical powers. People with disabilities don’t always want to be “cured” or have our disability magically go away – we simply want to be included in the mainstream and be respected as equals. And we most definitely aren’t evil; nor are we absolutely helpless.  We are contributing members of the larger society and we want to be independent with full access.

The disability community has much in common with all other minority community in terms of media representation. When African-Americans were starting to seize the reins of positive, proud representation of their music and entertainment, it helped break down stereotypes and barriers for the community. When Asian-Americans were no longer solely portrayed as tech or math geeks, it helped combat the “model-minority myth.” With increasing positive representation of the LGBT community in entertainment, it helped advance the issue of human rights and equality. And to give an example not from the entertainment area but from the media area, politicians found out the hard way that if they utilized scare tactics negatively portraying the Latinos in elections, it hurt their bottom line. There is a huge incentive in positively and accurately portraying people with disabilities in media and entertainment.

Having people with disabilities portrayed through such a mainstream platform as media is a very good way to diversify the cast and add more intriguing factors to the story. I am all for continuing and increasing the images of people with disabilities in media, in our movies, and in our television. What people need to realize is that those images affect the way society views and treats people with disabilities. Thus, it is all the more important that disability is not treated as a casual prop or representation of adversity/evil. It is important to our next generation of young kids with disabilities that they have positive role models to look up to in media.

AAPD continually congratulates our entertainment and media partners who make an effort to portray and include people with disabilities respectfully and positively on the mainstream level. Thank you for keeping this important issue at the forefront and with full access in mind, let’s enjoy the entertainment together!



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Submitted by The "WEEL" DEAL !!! at 04:30 PM on March 10, 2012
It's time for a change!!! I am black, female and a wheelchair user due to an automobile accident, C7, paralyzed from the neck down, brain damage and a trache to help me breathe. Dr's said I was not going to live. Called family and a Priest in to anoint me for my burial. God intervened! Put me on the road to recovery. The accident was many years ago and He has allowed me to accomplish much!! I have been actively involved in the disability community for over 40 years!! I like challenges and taking risk!! :) I sing and I am going to audition for some Karaoke contests and major TV singing contests (X-Factor, The Voice and whatever else that comes my (our) way!! Stayed tuned and be on the look out for the "WHEEL DEAL!!" :)
Submitted by Peaches at 03:41 PM on February 22, 2012
Might want to do a story on this guy, he's amazing and handsome.
Submitted by netzel at 05:55 PM on February 10, 2012
I agree with the posting and I still am very disturbed that the disABILITY community has not raised issue with the person who uses a wheelchair on "Glee". He is not a wheelchair user in real life and I am sure there must have been an actor who did use a wheelchair and was suitable for the role.
Submitted by Gail at 04:54 PM on February 10, 2012
Have you reviewed the movie "The Music Within"? The story of the life of Richard Pimentel. If you have not seen it, please do, it is very good and pay attention to Art and his experience in the pancake house!
Submitted by RLM at 03:56 PM on February 10, 2012
You are so hyprocritical within yourself! I sent you the FB inbox message to sit down with you to discuss and make strategy to maximize the Deaf/deaf voter registration drive for the Deaf America. ou NEVER reply at all. Sheesh! You are no better than so-called activist halo around your head! Robert L. Mason

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