Image: Channel 4

Has TV failed disabled people?

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Diversity in television is complicated. At surface level, there seems to be an easy solution to the lack of diversity on screen – cast more people of colour, hire more female screenwriters, and consult disabled people before attempting to portray their experiences. For example, Channel Five’s new drama Anne Boleyn sees black actress Jodie Turner-Smith cast as the Tudor queen. Yet in practice, representation is often difficult: would casting a gay James Bond, as suggested by co-star Ben Whishaw, be a step forward, or would writing an original gay character into it be better? Should a character’s disability be central to them, or should it be disregarded in an attempt to normalise seeing disabilities on screen? 

Also, everybody’s experiences are completely different. While I can speak on autistic representation to an extent, based on my own life and people I know, I can’t speak for black autistic people, autistic people who have additional disabilities, non-verbal autistic people, or extroverted autistic people. When it comes to other disabilities, I’m even more ignorant on what does and doesn’t count as good representation. Just like everyone else, disabled people come in all shapes and sizes. Not to mention that intersectionality is another huge issue when it comes to diversity – has anyone else noticed that disabled characters are often white men?

The core of the problem is this: too many disabled characters, as well as disabled stories, are written and portrayed by people that don’t know enough about them. Too often, our stories are told by abled people, who either see us as an inspiration, people struggling to overcome our disabilities (because they’re such a burden?), or as ‘quirky’ characters (most portrayals of ADHD follow this line). This often ends up with an, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a straight-up offensive portrayal of disabled people. 

Often due to the lack of disabled people involved in production, portrayals often end up being stereotypical

Furthermore, it’s incredibly rare to see disabled people playing the characters we’re supposed to relate to, despite there being tons of talented disabled actors out there. In shows like There She Goes, nine year old Rosie is played by an able actress because it was thought a disabled girl of the same age would find it too stressful. It’s understandable that child actors have a very difficult time already, but it’s also very odd to watch an able person mimic a disabled person (such as meltdowns or stimming) and not feel quite offended. While the involvement of children makes it a more nuanced issue, when it comes to casting disabled adults there’s no real excuse. I laughed out loud when reading that the writer of Atypical, Robia Rashid, had “auditioned people with autism-spectrum disorder and neurotypical actors and [non-autistic] Keir Gilchrist ended up being the right fit”. The fact she found autistic people didn’t ‘fit’ the role of an autistic person raises the question of who disabled people are supposed to portray on TV if we can’t even portray ourselves?

Often due to the lack of disabled people involved in production, portrayals often end up being stereotypical. This inspired Paul Hunt to identify a list of disabled stereotypes used in media: pitiable or pathetic (Kathy in Diff’rent Strokes), an object of curiosity or violence (a series of characters in American Horror Story: Freakshow), sinister or evil (this is so common that TV tropes has a page dedicated to examples), the super cripple (Wonder), as atmosphere (Charlie in Hereditary), their own worst enemy, and more. If you have a few hours to spare (and want to lose faith in TV), I fully recommend making a bingo card and going through some of your favourite TV shows. 

However, I’d like to pause to appreciate some good representation of disability on TV. Writers like David Renaud, (Pure Genius and The Good Doctor, both of which centre dis3abled characters), as well as Jack Thorne, are big advocates for having disabled people both on and off-screen. Shows like Years and Years treat disabled characters (shockingly) just like everyone else – Ruth Madeley continues to be brilliant in everything she does – and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay features two autistic actresses playing autistic characters. Special on Netflix is semi-biographical, written by and starring Ryan O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy himself. These gems of representation do exist (and I’m sure there are many more out there), but have to be actively sought out rather than diversity being seen in the mainstream.

Too often disabilities (especially neurodiversity) become the punchline of a joke, just like so many other minorities

A major problem that crops up with disabled characters is what is known as ‘inspiration porn’, which portrays disabilities as some kind of terrible burden to overcome. Such a portrayal of disability exists solely to make able people feel inspired or good about themselves. Generally, this debate crops up a lot when the Paralympics are on television, like the 2016 advertisement ‘We’re the Superhumans’ for the Rio Olympics. Something I always find myself wondering when watching movies or TV shows like this is why disabled people are not only viewed as conduits for inspiration, but for lessons too? What makes it our job to educate other people on our disabilities, if we’re apparently so helpless and unlike you ‘normal’ people?

Some people do like to view their disability as a kind of superpower (climate change activist Greta Thunberg comes to mind), while others find this borderline offensive. Personally, I find the whole concept of ‘inspiration porn’ ridiculous and even a little bit amusing. I don’t want a neurotypical person to see me reading a book and think ‘wow, what a hero. Even though they’re autistic, they can still read books just like the rest of us’. It would be ridiculous to find a woman doing sport extraordinarily impressive – ‘she managed to do sport in spite of her being born a woman!’ – so why should it be any different for disabled people? This kind of ‘positive’ discrimination slips under the radar all the time.

Too often disabilities (especially neurodiversity) become the punchline of a joke, just like so many other minorities. You need to laugh with us, not at us. One example is Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, whose autistic traits are commonly played for laughs (or used to justify misogyny?), and is the main portrayal that comes to mind when someone thinks of an autistic person in TV. Not only is this portrayal stereotypical and offensive, it encourages viewers to laugh at us. Disabled people are too used to people laughing at us, whether it’s to our faces or behind our backs – we are the people who were bullied in school for being ‘weird’ in a way that able people aren’t often able to place, for sticking out among our peers. 

What I propose is that we need more disabled characters, written by disabled writers, and portrayed by disabled actors

Similarly, dating shows like Love Island, First Dates, and The Undateables, all encourage the audience to laugh at and pity disabled people. Shows like The Undateables in particular seem to have fallen flat in their portrayal of disability, playing off one of Hunt’s stereotypes that disabled people are inherently asexual beings and suggesting that nobody wants to date us. What the patronising voiceover calls “extraordinary singletons” just seem to be disabled people who struggle with dating, (does anyone know where this stereotype comes from? I know plenty of disabled people, including myself, who have long-term partners). 

It’s hard to summarise my feelings on disability representation in TV, due to the complexities of the issue. What I propose is that we need more disabled characters, written by disabled writers, and portrayed by disabled actors. We need to tell our stories about disability but also our stories outside of it, and appear in stories that don’t focus around it entirely. 

While I can’t speak for all disabled people, (there are still huge differences when it comes to race and religion in portrayal of disabilities – nearly every disabled character is white, and I’ve barely touched on physical conditions), I do think diversity in TV is starting to move in the right direction. It just needs people like us to give it a push to get it there. 

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