REACH: Where are the Disabled Central Protagonists in Television and Movies?

January 17, 2019 by Alison Watson-Shields

I have been waiting to write this post for sometime as it is a topic that interests and vexes me all at once.

To put this into context, I am a binge watcher of television programmes, I adhere to no TV scheduling; preferring to use streaming services and DVDs. In my opinion, there is nothing better than watching your favourite programme at your own convenience.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that the television shows that I watch the most are from the United States. Other than a few shows, I do not have a vested interest in UK-based programmes. My current ‘binge-watching’ shows of choice are ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, ‘Scandal’ and ‘Private Practice’.

Recently, I have realised that there is a blatant under representation of disabled people in these shows. For the most part, disabled characters are kept in the background or are used to demonstrate or emphasis certain parts of a story line. Disabled characters are usually only seen for a handful of episodes at a time and then disappear into the relative obscurity.

There are a few exceptions to the rule:

‘Sue Thomas F.B.Eye’ shows disability in a positive light. The title character is profoundly deaf (as is the actress who plays her) and is offered an opportunity within the F.B.I. to put her lip-reading skills to good use as part of a surveillance team. Many of the story lines used for the show are actual F.B.I. case files, as the series was inspired by a real F.B.I agent. This series also explores many of the negative aspects of being disabled, such as inappropriate attitudes, comments and discrimination.

Under-representation is also a problem in the movie industry, with movies often romanticising or joking about disability. For example:

‘Inside I’m Dancing’ is focused on two young men with Cerebral Palsy as they fight to assert their independence and overcome an incredibly prejudicial system, while ’Morgan’ concerns a young man who is recovering from an accident in which he was paralysed. Both movies are emotional in places but demonstrated that being disabled is not the end of your story but can be the beginning of a different one. ‘Morgan’ also deals with issues surrounding the disabled LGBTQ+ community.

The tools to tackle the under-representation of disabled people in the mainstream media already exist. We simply need to refocus on the issue that is ‘disability’.

Shonda Rhimes is one of the production team that works on some of the television programmes that I have named above. Since the beginning of her career, she has consistently promoted equality and diversity by using African American actresses in the forefront of her programmes and also promotes the conversations surrounding transgender issues, same-sex relationships, and racism across all of her shows.

One way to promote disability-related story lines and characters would be to have a similar approach to that mentioned above; talking about the issues of the day, such as disability, inclusion and breaking down barriers.

We need to encourage the TV and film industry to re-examine their approach to disability and to increase the amount of disability-related storylines within their programming. After all, shouldn’t the television and films that we watch, represent the entire society?

Written by Liam Twizell, REACH Advocate

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