Historically, representation of individuals with disabilities in the media has been sorely lacking and at times overtly offensive. Caricature-like performances by able-bodied people rely heavily on damaging stereotypes and almost infallibly garner awards season love (think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Stories portrayed about people with disabilities often utilize “inspiration porn,” the idea that individuals with disabilities are considered inspirational merely because of living a “normal” life with their disability. Arguably, the most problematic offense is that these stories are more often than not not created or portrayed with people with disabilities in mind. Instead, the narratives are overwhelmingly constructed for able-bodied individuals, most of whom have no insight into the experiences of individuals with disabilities, which is why these trends are still so pervasive in the media.
There is also the issue around who should be the purveyors of these stories, which feeds into another trend of people without disabilities exploiting the experiences of people with disabilities for the sake of entertainment. Intent is something to be considered, of course, but more often than not the ideas behind these productions are misplaced. These problematic tendencies need to be broken down and observed critically in order to create narratives that actually reflect the lives of individuals with disabilities. This past year, the ABC original comedy Speechless has attempted (and largely succeeded, albeit with a few substantial flaws) at doing just that. From tackling stereotypes and at times reclaiming them to actually casting an individual who has a disability to play a character who has one, this show is doing something fresh, funny, and ultimately, deeply important.
Being an able-bodied person, I knew I couldn’t completely provide a completely well-rounded point of view so I asked Angel Powell , a fellow LD writer who lives with a mild form of cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair to weigh in on the representation of people with disabilities in the media.
After Me Before You, a film that was met with box office success yet intense criticism from the disability community for reinforcing the idea that it is better to be dead than be in a wheelchair, Speechless is a much needed respite from what we are used to seeing in popular culture. One of the most notable differences from Speechless and other media representations of individuals with disabilities is the show’s lead actor, Micah Fowler, a teenager with cerebral palsy. The show’s creator, Scott Silveri, who has an older brother with cerebral palsy, asserts that this decision was simply a no-brainer –why wouldn’t you cast an individual with CP to play a character with CP? Unfortunately, this casting choice is rare in modern television.This is damaging not only because these representations are often inaccurate to the experiences of the individuals portrayed, but also because the casting of predominantly able individuals takes jobs away from those same equally capable and talented actors and actresses. Silveri said he expected some push-back from the network for deciding to cast Fowler as the lead, but received none, showing that, slowly but surely, prime-time television is inching towards a more inclusive and accurate representation of the disability community in a way that feels authentic and not contrived.
Speechless breaks down and addresses stereotypes that are familiar to any viewers, but pays special attention to tackling those that are commonplace to anyone involved in the disability community. The writing makes the stereotypes clear, but addresses them in a way that feels clever and satirical, and never moves into the territory of pointing fingers at ignorance. For example, in the episode I-N-S—INSPIRATIONS, it even touches on the often condescending questions caretakers get such as, “Who is helping who?” Speechless approaches stereotypes by promoting understanding, while still being critical of some of the issues we see presented poorly in less educated or accurate representations of individuals with disabilities in the media.
As a marginalized person, seeing yourself reflected on screen, in books, or in other forms of media, you can seem interesting and maybe even stereotypical. As a disabled person, seeing disability in media is one of the most frustrating things to deal with and is often inaccurate, ableist and downright wrong. It’s not exactly unfair for me to say that I have certain feelings about what’s reflected back to me, about me. I was not in anyway excited for Speechless because I knew that just because the main actor had the same disability as I do, it could still be awful. Telling the story of a person with a disability through the eyes of a non-disabled person can be skewed and often centers the able person. Though the show wasn’t as bad as I expected, there were still things that made me cringe. In Season 1, Episode 8 entitled “R-A-Y-C– RAY-CATION,” the main character, JJ likes a girl and she’s in a wheelchair temporarily, due to a broken leg, and he asks her out and the first thing his parents assume is he’s going to rejected and that she must be nice because JJ couldn’t handle it otherwise, a common concern in the disability community among parents. Now I’m not saying this isn’t a concern, no parent wants a heartbroken kid and dating with a disability is hard, but on the other hand, they seemed to work in concert with making sure she liked him, which is also unfair because it made it like if they presented JJ in the best light possible, she couldn’t reject him even if she was into him. Ultimately he is rejected, but JJ handles it much better than his parents thought he would. Other issues I have with the show aren’t as socially exceptional, but more practical – there is a literal jungle of weeds and trees in front of JJ’s home, which in real life would present an accessibility problem. I don’t hate the show, it’s sweet and I definitely relate. The challenges of being disabled need to be shown on screen, but I don’t expect a person who’s again, not in a chair to get it perfect.
Though, the representation of disability is [slowly] improving. It is still struggling, speechless is a show written from a disability adjacent view meaning he only knows someone in a wheelchair, but not the experience, proper representation involves more work, disability in media is overwhelmingly white and male and that has to change. There needs to be writing with less ableist language and overall, there needs to be more disabled television writers— and they exist! I used to want to be one. The powers that be need to do the real work.