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A Question on Representation on TV

by Editor
A question on TV representation for the FilmDis Question series.

What is the greatest thing some people misunderstand about representation on television for disability?

When you’re trying to improve the representation landscape  in media you get a lot of naysayers. Part of that comes from the misunderstanding that you can watch something that has problematic elements and still understand that those issues are problematic. When we say something is problematic, fans of that thing want us to understand that if people like it, or if they feel seen by it in some way, that our opinion is incorrect.

First of all, we’re not giving you our opinion on anything. When we talk about representation we’re doing it with a firm understanding of film/TV/media analysis, filmmaking, and screenwriting. As we have been doing our FilmDis Study on Disabled Representation on TV since 2018, we also have a keen understanding of the correlation between disabled representation on television and how that representation leads to the treatment of disabled people in society. 

So, when we say that a portrayal is harmful, we’re saying that not as an opinion but as an educated fact. We don’t just say…”The Good Doctor is a bad show.” We tell you why it’s hurting people. Whether I find parts of this show relatable or entertaining (on a personal level I don’t) is beside the point. My focus is on what people are gaining from the disability portrayals on whatever show we are talking about and whether those portrayals could be improved upon if the hired actor had the disability the character on the show has (usually that answer is yes).  

But, I digress. This information doesn’t have much to do with the initial question other than to help you understand that we’re not just avid TV watchers with opinions, we are writers, directors, filmmakers, consultants, and educated analysts. We know what we’re talking about AND we only talk about it because it is our hope that better portrayals means better treatment for current and future disabled people. 

Now, onto the question!

The biggest misunderstanding about representation on TV where disability is concerned is the idea that a non-disabled actor can “play” a disabled character. 

When this argument comes up (and it comes up far too much in 2023) it’s always prefaced with things like…”Well they hire actors to be doctors, they don’t really have medical training.” To be clear, being disabled isn’t a job. A job is something you generally get training for and then you go home and you do whatever you do when you’re not at work. As this is the case, the actor can study law terminology if they are playing a lawyer or they give them the correct words to say and show them the tools that a surgeon would use and they can “play” a surgeon. 

Perhaps more integral to this incorrect argument is the fact that when you’re on the street, not at your job, someone isn’t going to know you’re a doctor without your lab coat and tools of the trade. You don’t take off your disability and go home. It goes with you and everyone you meet (if it’s a physical or otherwise visible disability) knows you’re disabled. 

You can’t play disabled anymore than you can play female or male. Disabled people have a lived experience unlike anyone without a disability. To be blunt, non-disabled people don’t get it. They can emphasize, they can want to improve the lives of disabled people, they can even befriend them, but they are NOT them. 

Characters with disabilities are likened to physical stereotypes and that is why people think that anyone can play them. For example, if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, you shouldn’t move, or you should make sure to scrunch up your non-drive hand. If you’re Blind, make sure to not make eye contact and feel lots of faces. If you’re Deaf, just pretend you can’t hear anything. 

None of these things work though because it means that the actor has to think about ignoring the abilities they have to pretend they don’t have them. It impacts the character portrayal EVERY SINGLE TIME. Someone without a disability might not notice it because they don’t know, but the disabled people – especially people with the disability being portrayed – will notice. 

TV serves two important purposes beyond entertainment. 

  1. It allows us to be seen and feel represented. It shows us that we matter because someone is telling a story about someone like us. 
  2. It educates people about things they are unfamiliar with, be it a new way of life, a different culture, or something entirely different. 

Now imagine for a second that you only had the chance to be seen under entirely specific conditions. For example, you will be represented, but it won’t be by someone who truly understands you, and the portrayal only seeks to make you look like less of a person or worse, to teach non-disabled people that you are either expendable or a teachable moment. 

When a non-disabled actor mimics the behaviors of a disabled person for a role they are taking the job away from someone disabled. They are making disabled people’s lives harder because whether or not a disabled person receives services or is treated with basic kindness is dependent on the feelings society has about them. 

You know what society learns from all of these portrayals of disabled mimicry that are steeped in pitious, ableist, and inspirational ideas?

They learn that disabled people are less-than, child-like, incapable, unworthy, and they are afraid to become disabled because there is no counter-narrative to this destructive ideology that is freely peddled on TV. 

The only way to stop it is to hire disabled creatives including actors, writers, and other behind the scenes professionals. You may not be responsible for those choices, but remember – Hollywood is about money. If you know that a portrayal is harmful or you know a non-disabled actor is acting in a role that should have had a disabled person cast – don’t watch it. Don’t condone this behavior. If enough people take a stand and money is lost, things will change.

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