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Disability representations in television and movies


At the beginning of this pandemic, my friend and colleague Paul recommended a new movie on Netflix titled “Crip Camp.”

I admit my first reaction was a shudder. Experience has shown me that the latest popular Hollywood concoction purporting to represent or include people with disabilities is at best trite and at worst reinforcing the same stereotypes that have historically kept people with disabilities on the fringes of our society.

But I drummed up the courage to watch “Crip Camp,” and I was thrilled to find that it was not the normal disability representation. “Crip Camp” is a documentary about a group of people with disabilities who met at a summer camp in the 1970s. Their experiences at the camp led many of them to become leaders in the disability rights movement, which drove numerous legal advances for people with disabilities.

Just watch it. I don’t want to spoil it.

However, I am willing to spoil some of your other viewings. If you’re one of the millions of Americans binge watching over a streaming platform, chances are that you already have or soon will run across disabilities on your screen. Some are much worse than others. Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some pointers to help you be a discerning consumer of media representations of disability.

First, were people with disabilities included in the production? One of the things that makes “Crip Camp” a great viewing experience is that the entire movie is people with disabilities telling their own stories. It isn’t people without disabilities telling a sanitized or vilified version of disability; it is raw and real. If people with disabilities were involved in the writing, directing, production or presentation, that suggests a valid representation. While most of us would be horrified to see a white actor in blackface, we accept nondisabled actors playing people with disabilities without question.

Second, is the disability included merely to evoke an emotional reaction in the viewer? Disability does not need to be associated with pity, nor should people with disabilities be portrayed as heroic, inspiring or courageous simply by managing to get on with their daily lives. We have had enough of disabled characters represented as victims, villains, jesters and burdens on others.

Characters with disabilities show up as real people leading real lives. Look for a person with a disability to be a complete, three-dimensional character with the same foibles, flaws and triumphs as the rest of humanity.

Finally, be on the watch for friends and families of characters with disabilities as heroic or angelic or attempts to “cure” or “fix” the person with a disability. Disability is not the same as illness. But that is for another soap box column.

To hone your skills, you might start with some gold standards, like “Crip Camp” and “Murderball.” Both are documentaries, and both are told by people with disabilities. Maybe soon Hollywood will learn how to spin a tale as interesting as reality. Until then, do not let your perception of disabilities be “as seen on TV.”

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.