Despite an increased awareness of the need for diversity and inclusion in the media, the onslaught of ableist content published isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. There are still very few representations where a character is explicitly shown to be disabled in the media, and of those few representations the majority are highly problematic.
The main source of the problem seems to stem from the fact that disabled characters are usually more accurately described as disabled plot devices, with their roles poorly written and portrayed by able-bodied individuals, without any input from disabled people. This results in inaccurate and harmful stereotypes being spoon-fed to billions of people, and should disabled people speak up against the blatant ableism, our opinions are disregarded and we are deemed ungrateful.
I can think of several recent examples of this phenomenon, but in particular two films and one book spring to mind. They are by no means the only culprits of this worrying trend, but I could probably write a small novel if I didn’t limit myself to these three.
The first example is the movie Come As You Are, which is about three disabled men (played by able-bodied men) who go on a road trip because they can’t get laid. It is apparently based on a true story, and thus any concerns over ableism were immediately disregarded as irrelevant. The trailer alone was brimming with ableist nonsense, including the dogged insistence that person-first language is best, and the butt of almost every joke being the hilarious notion that a disabled person might have sex. I didn’t watch it.
Then there is the book Finding S.A.M., written by the mother of an autistic child, which is about a teenager with an autistic older brother (unnamed in the synopsis) who does embarrassing things like…wear a superman t-shirt. To cope with the utter tragedy that is being related to someone disabled, the protagonist makes up an imaginary sibling. Outraged, many individuals emailed the publisher, myself included. The initial response was a salty request not to judge a book by its synopsis, that is, the bit that is supposed to give you an accurate representation of the book to persuade you to buy it. In all fairness to the publisher, they did back down, apologise, and pull the book from sale, but that initial response will be of importance later on.
Finally, we have the film Music, from pop artist Sia, which cast a non-autistic actress in the role of an autistic character. The young actress prepared for the role by watching videos shared by parents of their autistic children having meltdowns, which is problematic enough, and only reflects one, tiny aspect of the autistic experience. When asked about this casting choice in an interview, Sia said that they had tried casting an autistic actor but it wasn’t feasible due to the working conditions, which is a fairly ballsy way of admitting that the casting process didn’t adhere to equality laws. Sia also demanded that people watch her film before passing judgement in a very rude tweet that I won’t be sharing. Sia’s ignorant defences only made the situation worse, especially as up until this point she herself had been a great example of someone disabled breaking into the mainstream. It was extremely disappointing to the disabled community when she revealed her true colours.
In all three of my listed examples, there are two common factors:
- The person writing or portraying the disabled character is not disabled themselves.
- Disabled people are expected to be critics, without the pay.
The first is a very controversial point, as invariably “it’s just acting/pretending” will crop up over and over again in a discussion on the topic. While I have no issue with able-bodied actors portraying disability in itself, the sheer lack of opportunities open to disabled actors makes it sting all the more when the few roles that could give disabled people a chance to shine are snatched away by their privileged counter-parts. Were it not for the lack of opportunities given to disabled actors, it would be much less of a concern. Similarly, without input from disabled people at some point during any creative process where we are the subject, the content invariably becomes a harmful misrepresentation of our lives, perpetuating negative stereotypes. Alternatively, we simply become plot points for other characters to realise how lucky they are, and motivate them into the third act. Imagine how much difference the input of just one disabled person could have made in turning all three of the above into positive representations of disability.
The second point is less obvious, but demanding that we view the entire project before passing judgement is equally unrealistic and harmful. Expecting us to commit our already limited time, energy, and money exposing ourselves to things that will hurt us is not how we want to spend our spare time. There is also nothing to indicate that our criticisms and concerns would be listened to once we’ve paid money for the experience. I am not a critic and I am not paid to act as such. Trailers and synopses are supposed to reflect the project accurately, and therefore if done correctly, will tell disabled people whether or not the product is ableist without us spending money on it first.
If you’re still not convinced that ableism in the media is a problem, I only have one thing to ask of you; would you really want to read Diary of a Disabled Person as written by someone who wasn’t disabled?