Calling for diverse disability representation
It is no secret that disability representation in media is incredibly rare, and I can’t help but wonder why that is, since diversity in literature and television is becoming more common. It’s absolutely amazing, and we should be proud of this positive change, because although it might be far from perfect, we’re still moving in the right direction.
However, it is sad that the current disability representation – when it occurs – is so one-dimensional and stereotypical.
Now, hear me out: I’m so happy that the amount of representation for people with disabilities has increased since I was a child. As I was growing up, I rarely encountered characters in books or TV shows that were like me, and those I did see, I couldn’t really relate to. Why? That’s because they were mostly adults living an unhappy life.
And I was a happy kid! A girl with an imagination that refused to be caged, so it roamed around constantly. The problem was that I never saw a character like that: a happy, young girl with a disability that didn’t define who she was. If you ask me, the unhappy portrayal is a little depressing, and it says a lot about how stereotypical disability representation in media often is.
In fact, people with disabilities make up around 10% of the world’s population, which makes it the largest minority in the world. It isn’t like the media has been limited creativity-wise in any way – there are so many different ways to shape a character with a disability. In fact, there are no limitations!
Allow me to break it down:
- People of color as well as white people can have disabilities
- People of every social class can have disabilities
- LGBTQA+ people can have disabilities
- People of every age can have disabilities
And the list goes on, so why is it that characters with disabilities are – more often than not – rich, white men? (Looking at you, ‘Me Before You’). Why is it that characters with disabilities are almost always portrayed as lonely and depressed? And when they’re not, their struggles in life are completely erased from the narrative?
When I talk about this online, some people become mad at me, and I can do nothing but explain to them how sad it is to see representation for millions of people be the exact same every time. We all deserve to have our stories told. It annoys me that able-bodied writers who create characters with disabilities rarely take this into account. When I criticized author JoJo Moyes for writing an ableist story about a man with a permanent disability, who (SPOILER ALERT) commits suicide and leaves his able-bodied girlfriend a bunch of money, people jumped at my throat, trying to silence me on the subject forever.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not going to accept the situation as it is now, and that’s because I keep imagining the kind of happiness it would bring to a child with a disability to see someone like them be portrayed in cartoons or books. I know what difference it would have made for me.
Allow me to gush about a character with a disability on television that I think has been written quite well, and that is Raven Reyes from The 100. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, I can tell you that Raven Reyes is a beautiful Latina woman who becomes disabled after being shot in the back. The narrative does not erase her struggles – in fact, she has plenty of them, but she’s (canonically) the strongest character on the show. Hearing some of her lines almost made me tear up, especially this one: “My shoulder is killing me and I can barely walk, but my brain is all kinds of awesome.” That, at least in my opinion, is disability representation done right! It notes the fact that she has her struggles, yet they are nothing compared to how much of a genius she is. They don’t define her.
I wish that there were more characters like her out there. That’s what I’d want for the future of disability rep: lovely, well-rounded, disabled characters that are diverse as opposed to reduced to some horrible stereotype that – most of the time – belongs in the trash.
There’s one last, crucial point I want to make, which is: People with disabilities deserve happy endings. They deserve to find romantic love (if that’s something they want), and they deserve to feel like they’re useful and wonderful, which they are. But characters with disabilities deserve those endings, too; otherwise no kid with a disability will be able to relate to them in a good way.
I don’t see why it’s so difficult to write happy endings for characters with disabilities. Maybe it’s because a lot of the able-bodied people who create characters with disabilities believe that disability is the end of a life. No, it’s not. I call tell you that. I’m eighteen years old, was born with Cerebral Palsy, am studying in high school and planning to study either psychology or law. Happiness is not exclusively for able-bodied people.
People with disabilities are the future of this world, too, and we deserve to have our stories accurately told for everyone to see, so that we can look at their shocked faces and smile. That’s when the ableist writers out there will know that they had us all wrong.
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