People with Disabilities in Pop Culture – A Work in Progress

Glee_ArtieIn October the annual report Where We Are on TV was released, which tracks diversity on television using categories for sex and gender, race and ethnicity, and people with disabilities. While the 2013 research found that the number of TV characters with disabilities is on the rise, a great deal of room remains for improvement.

“When it comes to broadcast television, characters with disabilities are mostly represented by the non-disability community,” said Anita Hollander, chair of the National Performers with Disabilities Committee of the actors union SAG-AFTRA, which helped research Where We Are on TV. Cable television has a better record, “with at least half of all scripted characters with disabilities portrayed by performers with disabilities.”

According to Christine Bruno, an advocate at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and an actor herself, “Disability is often not even considered when you look at the picture of diversity in film, theater and television.”

That’s a huge problem because mass media and pop culture are “normalizing” influences, reflecting what is considered mainstream but also pushing those values ahead of the curve—often by challenging the status quo.

Media’s Power to Mainstream

In January Disability World ran an excellent editorial on the importance of including people with disabilities in advertising. The central argument here applies to mass media and pop culture as a whole: “It is well-known that advertising has contributed to raising the visibility of members of ethnic minorities. It is our hope that advertising can play a similar role [for people with disabilities].”

Actors from the hit TV series Glee made similar points at the 2012 Media Access Awards.

“I think that when you tell stories on television, which is a very powerful medium, and you show all different types of people, you accept it when you walk down the street,” said Jane Lynch, who plays coach Sue Sylvester on the show.

Iqbal Theba, who plays school Principal Figgins on Glee, said, “The idea is to get people who are different—people with disabilities, people who are gay, people of different nationalities—get them into people’s living rooms so they begin to see them as human beings.”

Lynch, who is gay, and Theba, who is a Pakistani-American, were on hand to help honor Glee actor Lauren Potter, who has Down’s syndrome and who plays Becky, Coach Sylvester’s sidekick on the series.

While the creators of Glee have made the show more inclusive than most, the program nevertheless offers another example of a disconnect when it comes to casting: one of the young club members—Artie Abrams—who uses a wheelchair, is played by an actor—Kevin McHale (pictured above, in character)—who does not have a physical disability.

Changing Expectations

Inclusion in mass media and pop culture can take many forms and confound all kinds of expectations, the Disability World editorial suggests. “Ads depicting people with disabilities in responsible jobs or senior positions, or contributing to the camaraderie at work, for example,” challenge expectations of low capability. Advertising can also “help nondisabled persons to realize they can chat, joke, or even argue with people with disabilities like they would with anyone else.

“The fact that we are not a regular feature of mainstream media in the way able-bodied persons are strengthens the negative perception that we are somehow not a part of supposedly normal life. Everyday situations including more people with disabilities, instead of situations especially associated with disability, should be shown more often.”

A few TV shows offering good examples of this criterion come to mind:

CSI actor Robert David Hall – he plays the coroner Dr. Al Robbins on this grisly crime series—is missing both of his legs, as is his character. But while Hall—and his character—use prosthetic legs, and Hall uses a wheelchair as well, his disability is not a major part of his role, which revolves around a lot of blood, gore, and brilliant forensic analysis.

R. J. Mitte, an actor who has Cerebral Palsy, played Walter White, Jr., a character who has Cerebral Palsy, on Breaking Bad.  Mitte competed against a number of actors without the disability before being hired for the part. While Walt Jr.’s disability was an integral part of the Breaking Bad story line—it was just one of a number of issues the character struggled with in this hugely successful show.

Audiences Rule

It is empowering to realize that there are plenty of ways for all of us, as consumers of popular culture, to push even the most powerful media giants toward greater inclusion.  When enough audience members demand it, programming changes are made.

That’s exactly what happened with a campaign that began two summers ago and culminated this past fall. Back in 2012 audience members noticed that the Glee character Becky was slated to graduate from high school but, unlike her peers, Becky, who has Cerebral palsy, wasn’t making plans to attend college. Using the hashtag #College4Becky, viewers took to Twitter and Facebook urging the show’s writers to include college in Becky’s story line. The resulting episode, which aired in November, is not without critics but it did put the power of audience advocacy on full display.

Of course, it’s not just in television where progress is being made—and where much more progress is needed. 2013 saw people with disabilities involved in commercial modeling, music, dance, theater, film, commercial sports and news casting. But while these are all great stories—it will be really great when we get to a point where they’re actually nothing special.

Meanwhile, the ReelAbilities Film Festival is coming to NYC! The festival, which takes place March 6 through 11, includes 22 short and feature length films that promote appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with disabilities. Most of the offerings have one or more screenings that are free and open to the public; a few of these require pre-registration.

Notable features include: Cinemability, an exploration of how people with disabilities have been portrayed by Hollywood; Do You Believe in Love, a profile of a matchmaker who has MS; Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, which explores the practical and philosophical implications of technologies to enhance the human body; Invitation to Dance, a profile of disability activist Simi Linton; and Little World, a documentary shot by a young man who travels the world while using a wheelchair.

Full film descriptions, trailers, schedules and ticket information are available here.  Accessibility information can be found here.

Stay tuned for more news from the mass media and pop culture front!

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  1. […] Changing these industry practices has an important role in “normalizing” disability because, as Glee star Jane Lynch put it, “When you tell stories on television, which is a very powerful medium, and you show all […]

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