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[COMMENTARY] Still Here: Why Fair Media Disability Representation Matters

[COMMENTARY] Still Here: Why Fair Media Disability Representation Matters

Newly released and upcoming films such as “Father Stu,” which depicts a character dealing with a degenerative muscle disease, and “Awoke” which highlights the daily reality of physical disability– including navigating medical visits and welfare systems– may spark optimism about disability visibility in popular culture and movies. The recent addition of a deaf character on “The Simpsons” for the first time in 33 seasons seems hopeful.

However, the new release out this month on HBO Max, “The Batman” is the latest in a long line of character stereotypes known as the “Evil Cripple,” where disabled characters are evil or even become evil as a result of their disability.

Other films and TV shows take the tactic of what the late comedian and disability activist Stella Young called “inspiration porn,” which objectifies disabled people for others’ benefit, or as targets of derision as in six new films out of India.

These common tropes perhaps reveal how little non-disabled people know about disability. Without that understanding, it is not possible to understand how to be more accommodating and welcoming to all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four American adults have a disability that affects their daily lives—whether it is in terms of mobility, concentration and cognition, and more.

Yet a new study from the Nielsen Corporation indicates that while disability representation in media has improved compared to several decades ago, disabled viewers emphasize that the little representation that does exist is often inaccurate and prone to stereotyping.

Most of the increase in representation is due to feature films, which make up over 64% of disability representation. Unfortunately, most audiences spend time watching TV shows, which make up only about 16% of the representation. Meanwhile, 95% of roles featuring disabled people are depicted by actors without disabilities.

The recent Sundance Film Festival showcased eight full-length and short films featuring talent with disabilities and/or disability storylines—including 892Living, and Cha Cha Real Smooth. Festival organizers provided closed captioning on all films, audio descriptions for 11 of its full-length features, and the promise of ongoing audits of its accommodation procedures.

This may be a sign that more filmmakers are focused on accessible and more accurate content, including about those with less or nonvisible disabilities like learning and mental health issues.

At the recent Oscars ceremony, Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli’s announced the “Best Picture” award as Minnelli, who uses a wheelchair, was momentarily disoriented on stage, prompting Gaga to step in with a grace that many found admirable and touching, particularly because part of the interaction was caught on a hot mic. Minnelli is a long-time entertainer and one of only 21 EGOT winners—who have received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

Social media took notice. Following the Oscars, disability advocate Lucy Dawson tweeted, “People saying Liza Minelli shouldn’t have been at the Oscars / on stage / that it was wrong for her to be seen like that ……. Ok, you do realize that we all age? Most of us will become disabled…? Must everyone hide from the world and grow old quietly in silence?”

Meanwhile, others pointed to Gaga’s deference as a paradigm. Blogger Amanda Kathryn Storey, who deals with ADHD, anxiety, and depression, noted, “I hope that at some point we can discuss what a class act Lady Gaga is and how well she kept the Best Picture presentation going while still keeping Liza Minelli grounded and included without ever being patronizing or awkward.”

Others expressed surprise that Minnelli was still actively working though she, in fact, just celebrated her 75th birthday last year, where she also performed a version of the song, “Embraceable You.”

Also that evening, Troy Kotsur—recipient of the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in CODA—and award presenter, Youn Yuh-Jung, shared an emotional, teachable moment.

Before announcing the winner, Youn signed the words, “Congratulations” and “I love you,” giving Kotsur and other Deaf observers momentary access to the knowledge of Kotsur’s win before she announced it aloud. When Kotsur came on stage for his award, Youn quickly grabbed the Oscar statuette back to allow him to sign his acceptance speech—one so affecting that even his interpreter started tearing up.

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Dedicating the award to “the Deaf community, the CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) community, and the disabled community,” Kotsur is only the second Deaf actor to win an Oscar, the first being his CODA co-star Marlee Matlin, who won the Oscar 35 years ago in 1986 for her film, Children of a Lesser God.

It is also noteworthy that Sian Heder won the best-adapted screenplay for CODA, and she is hearing.

The conversations on social media in recent days reveal how discussions around disability have yet to reach the point of being normal and mundane, and how urgent it is to remove associations of disability with affliction or shame.

Gaga’s respectful demeanor with Minelli, alongside Youn’s deftness in grabbing back Kotsur’s Oscar and gesturing for him to give his speech, shows how quick assessments of a situation can lead to almost immediate and painless accommodations. Youn’s thoughtfulness was followed by audience members participating in Deaf applause or twisting both hands in the air.

Of course, what is necessary is much longer and more complicated conversations on how it is important not only to raise awareness through media imagery but improve disability justice.

That needs to start now.

About the Author:

Leah Milne is an Associate Professor of Multicultural American Literature at the University of Indianapolis, author of Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narrativesand a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. 

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