Do you think the media misrepresents disabilities? | The Tylt

Do you think the media misrepresents disabilities?

Disabled persons have been historically stereotyped in media. Some argue that disabled characters are portrayed in one of two ways: the remarkable hero or the victim, failing to demonstrate what living with a disability is like in everyday life. Others say shows like ABC's "The Good Doctor" demonstrate television's progress when it comes to understanding disabilities and disorders. Does the media finally get it, or is there still more work to be done? 

FINAL RESULTS
Culture
Do you think the media misrepresents disabilities?
A festive crown for the winner
#MoreAwarenessNeeded
#MediaHasCaughtUp
Dataviz
Real-time Voting
Do you think the media misrepresents disabilities?
#MoreAwarenessNeeded
#MediaHasCaughtUp
#MoreAwarenessNeeded

According to Media Smarts, Canada's center for digital and media literacy, there are three common tropes for persons with disabilities in media: the victim, the hero, and the villain. Media Smarts reports: 

...the website Media and Disability, an organization advocating for broader representation of people with disabilities, points out that 'disabled people, when they feature at all, continue to be all too often portrayed as either remarkable and heroic, or dependent victims.'

Media Smarts also notes that wheelchairs are the most dominant when it comes to representing disabled persons in television and movies; a trick of the eye, more or less, where an able-bodied actor plays an obviously disabled one, while still appearing "normal" to the audience. 

These forms of representation are, at worst, cruel and, at best, inaccurate. Even the U.N. echoed Media Smarts findings, holding the position that: 

 It is not uncommon to see persons with disabilities treated as objects of pity, charity or medical treatment that have to overcome a tragic and disabling condition or conversely, presented as superheroes who have accomplished great feats, so as to inspire the non-disabled.
Attention should be drawn to the image of disability in the media with a view to an accurate and balanced portrayal of disability as a part of everyday life. The media can play an important role in presenting disability issues in a way that could dispel negative stereotypes and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.
#MediaHasCaughtUp

But the focus on everyday life is exactly where some shows are succeeding. Freeform's (formerly ABC Family) "Switched at Birth," features no less than three main characters who are deaf, and these characters are no stranger to normal teen experiences. The show covers topics like dating, sex, sports and more for all characters, deaf or otherwise. 

Women's Media Center's Elsa Sjunneson-Henry lauded the show for its realism on a number of counts:

In the first season, Daphne (the Deaf character, played by Katie Leclerc, who has hearing loss similar to mine) has to explain to her hearing parents by birth why she doesn’t want cochlear implants—and the show does a great job in later seasons of showing what it is like to get cochlears.
My favorite moment in Switched at Birth came during the second season, when young Deaf students protest to keep their school open. It’s a beautiful episode—done exclusively in sign language with no auditory lines, and it brought tears to my eyes. It’s rare to see American Sign Language as the primary language on any piece of media, certainly even rarer for it to be in the mainstream.
This normalizes disability in a new and important way—no longer are disabled characters on television for an afternoon, a blip on the radar of the history of a story. Disabled actors aren’t relegated to being an after-school special moment, meant to inspire able-bodied people to be helpful, or to feel lucky for having been born in the 'right' body. 

"Switched at Birth" was on the air from 2011 to 2017, showing that even seven years ago, the media was already taking the hint. 

#MoreAwarenessNeeded

The best-selling novel-turned-movie, "Me Before You" faced major criticism in 2016 for its representation of physical disabilities. The story follows a young man–rich, playboy, you know the one–who becomes a quadriplegic after a car accident. He falls in love with his caretaker, but nevertheless (spoiler ahead) chooses a fate of assisted suicide, rather than live with his new disability. 

The Guardian spoke with actor and activist Liz Karr on the topic:

'We have so few opportunities in the media to explore disability...But there is a disproportionate number of stories which relate to the "problem" of disability being solved by death. Television and film seem to love those individuals who want to die. They’re less keen to cover the rest of us who might want to live but are struggling to get the health and social care resources to do so.'
#MediaHasCaughtUp

ABC's "The Good Doctor" follows a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. Autism Speaks, a prominent autism advocacy organization, paid close attention to the shows premiere in 2017. According to motivational speaker and author who is on the autism spectrum, Kerry Magro: 

Producers strive for realism in portraying these autistic characters with the danger of not clearly understanding the individuality of each person on the spectrum...The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razor’s edge. Freddie [Highmore] does well in his debut, showing several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis. 
Based on statistics from the Department of Labor, a majority of those with disabilities in the U.S. today are unemployed. Discussing the hiring of someone with a disability highlights its importance. There are other areas that come to mind including relationships in the workplace, safety and different types of ways people learn. Dr. Murphy for example thinks in pictures (as can be seen when he’s on screen when he’s visualizing the human body or trying to remember a definition of a specific word).

According to Magro, "The Good Doctor" succeeds in demonstrating that those with disorders are not defined by their diagnoses.

#MoreAwarenessNeeded

The hero trope is among the most common for persons with disabilities in TV and movies, with some storylines going so far as to make turn their physically disabled characters into superheroes. 

In 1964, Stan Lee brought Daredevil into the picture: the world's first blind superhero. ABC News' Bryan Robinson spoke with Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, the director of special programs for the National Federation of the Blind, about the latest Daredevil adaptation on Netflix. According to Zaborowski:

'My concern is that characters are portrayed in such a way that the only way they can be competent is if they are somehow exceptional, have some kind of superpower or had some kind of technology that enabled them to see.'
'What I would really like to see is a blind character in the movies and television just leading a normal life, where his blindness is not the whole center of attention, holding a job, and having fun, living a full life.'

The point is, when characters with physical disabilities, mental illnesses or any other disorder are shown as miraculous entities, the media says that in order to live with a disability, you need superhuman powers. Every hero portrayal opposes progress elsewhere in media. 

#MediaHasCaughtUp

Most recently, the new Netflix drama, "Maniac," has received praise for its realistic portrayal of what its like to live with mental illness.

The show's director, Cary Fukunaga, spoke with Bustle's Rebecca Patton. According to Fukunaga:

'I think the intent was to be as sensitive as possible to mental illness—to not make that a joke.'

Patton also explains the context of the show:

Its main characters, Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone), each suffer from mental illnesses, and although their diagnoses aren't the primary focus, they both struggle to live normal lives while battling their respective inner demons. Maniac tackles the idea of achieving normalcy despite mental illness by thrusting its characters into bizarre, otherworldly landscapes. Ultimately, the show concludes being 'normal' is both impossible and undesirable, as characters come to terms with their quirks.

For "Maniac" writers, the goal was to portray the everyday experiences of those with mental disorders, even within a science fiction setting. According to the show's creator, Patrick Somerville:

'[W]hen I was reading about schizophrenia diagnoses, I was much more drawn toward the everyday experience of people who have that diagnosis than I was to maybe the mechanics of schizophrenia.'

"Maniac" represents the future of disabilities portrayed in TV and movies. The industry recognizes that these characters not only deserve more representation but the same, everyday storylines as their able-bodied and differently-minded counterparts. 

FINAL RESULTS
Culture
Do you think the media misrepresents disabilities?
A festive crown for the winner
#MoreAwarenessNeeded
#MediaHasCaughtUp