As different types of media continue to gain in popularity, society has seen many diverse people represented on screen and in stories. However, there is still one group that is largely overlooked — those with different abilities.
Representation in media is important. When people see themselves portrayed onscreen, it inspires them and helps them feel seen and valued. Media representation also has the ability to show audiences new perspectives and educate them in new ways.
However, even with the recent push for diversity in society, our media is still largely ableist. In fact, a study conducted by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that only 8% of family films in 2018 and 2019 featured a differently abled lead. While this represents a significant jump from just 1% in previous years, this number is still strikingly low, especially considering that one in five people in the U.S. lives with some type of disability.
“A lot of times the people with different abilities are played to be very fragile and it’s like no, those are the toughest people out there.”
Dr. Kellie Sharp-Hoskins, a professor at New Mexico State University, researches how rhetorical narratives manage possibilities for representation. She says that part of the reason there is a lack of representation for differently abled people is because ableism has been normalized in popular culture.
“It’s so frequent and so familiar that we don’t question it: it seems ‘normal,’” Sharp-Hoskins said. “But normal doesn’t just exist, it is the effect of repetition. Part of the work of recognizing ableism is figuring out how to ask questions, about who we see represented and how we see them represented.”
A recent example of this is the movie “CODA,” which stands for Child of Deaf Adults. The film tells the story of a young girl as the only hearing member in a deaf family. While the movie was praised for bringing representation to the deaf community, it has also been criticized for depicting the deaf characters as dependent on their hearing daughter.
This is not uncommon; even when differently abled people are shown in the media, it is often in ways that reinforce stigmas and negative stereotypes.
Samuel Cueto is a New Mexico State University student with quadriplegia. He says the worst stereotype is seeing differently abled people portrayed as weak.
“A lot of times the people with different abilities are played to be very fragile and it’s like no, those are the toughest people out there,” Cueto said. “You know, they’re still putting themselves out there and they’re still wanting to achieve their goals regardless of what they’re able to do or not able to do.”
Fragility is not the only stereotype which is reinforced in pop culture, however. Differently abled people are also often portrayed as bitter and only happy if “cured” of their disability. Conversely, they are sometimes depicted as superheroes or geniuses, which can send the message that they must do something extraordinary to be valued.
But Cueto says that the easiest way to overcome these stereotypes and to popularize good representation is simple. Just like everyone else, differently abled people should be shown as real humans, not people whose lives revolve around their abilities.
“Real really helps,” Cueto explained. “People express how they live their lives and it might be different from someone else, but they’re still working hard to achieve the same dreams and goals. We all have our own successes.”