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The representation of disabled people in TV & Movies

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Diversity and inclusivity are two topics that are gaining more and more attention, not only in the workplace but also in Hollywood. Yet, disability is often disregarded over other issues.

We know that representation in the media is important because it brings awareness, empathy and offers opportunities to talented actors with disabilities, so is enough being done in this area? What challenges are the disabled community facing and what are good examples of authentic representation in film and TV shows?

Why is disability representation important?

Today there are around 12 million people suffering from a disability in the UK, which equates to 18% of the national population. However, they only make up around 6.8% of people appearing on screen.

These figures are disappointing, but even more so when we think that a non-disabled writer is most likely to be the one writing a story about a disabled person with no experience and knowledge of the disability community! As Christophe Shinn (an able-bodied actor playing characters with disabilities) rightly said: “able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can’t draw on their direct experience.”

Better media representation challenges people’s views on disability. It opens their perspective and it may help them to rethink assumptions or stereotypes about disability. It could also help to break the circle of low rates of employment and bullying among disabled people in the long run. And as we know our world needs to adapt to these disabilities better and offer more disabled-friendly facilities, access, vehicles and more.
What are the best film portrayals of disability?

Unfortunately, films that portray disability are often riddled with stereotypes and clichés that can do more damage than good. In general, disabled characters are usually represented as victims to pity, superheroes or villains.

Forrest Gump is the perfect example of a disabled man performing extraordinary things to inspire an audience. Or Darth Vader; the ultimate villain with prosthetic arms and legs in Star Wars. The character’s disability should not be the determining factor in affecting their behaviour and personality: We need to end the vicious cycle of “I have therefore I am …”.

However, if you are looking for authentic representation of disabled actors, then there are some great films and TV shows leading the way.
A Quiet Place directed by John Krasinski is an American post-apocalyptic thriller, which also demonstrates a close representation of the deaf community, featuring Millicent Simmonds, a 15-year-old deaf actress as one of the main characters.

We also think of Stranger Things, featuring the young actor, Gaten Matarazzo, playing Dustin. Gaten suffers from cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic bone condition, which affects his teeth and bone growth
American actor RJ Mitte is best known for his role as Walter ‘Flynn’ White Jr. in Breaking Bad and like his character on the show, he has cerebral palsy.

The Future

Hollywood is slowly changing and adapting to be more inclusive to actors with disabilities, so perhaps the future will be brighter. Stories that include real people with real disabilities are authentic and therefore raise real awareness about the struggles associated with each type of disability.

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