The culture surrounding disability is a somewhat foreign one, which the mainstream, non-disabled (or “able-bodied”) community doesn’t always know how to handle. The fact is, a lack of disability is so expected, so normalized, that many people who aren’t associated with the disability community may not even recognize “able-bodied” as a term of identity. What those who are not associated with the disability community are missing are appropriate ways to react to the reality of disability. It’s not their fault; their education on the subject is ridiculously skewed.
A standard disability narrative is one which caters to the comfort of a non-disabled audience in a phenomenon known in the disability community as “Inspiration Porn.” This is a media portrayal centered on a subject or character with a disability whose purpose is to convey a message to a non-disabled audience that the disabled subject can live a life as close to that of a non-disabled person as possible. This is predominantly accomplished in one of two ways.
First, normal navigation through life is treated as an extraordinary feat of strength and character. Such portrayals include:
- A child with a disability who makes friends with other “normal” children at school, or, from the non-disabled person’s point of view, a child who committed the noble act of befriending someone with a disability.
- A couple in which one person has a disability and the other doesn’t but somehow still manage to fall in love; or a selfless partner whose life is filled with constant struggle, but who still puts their disabled lover’s needs before their own.
- A high school senior with a disability has plans to go to college directly after graduating, or a wide-eyed hopeful dreamer in a wheelchair “hopes to attend college someday.”
- A team manager with Down’s syndrome “gets” to make the last basket of the season, and everyone celebrates, while this tokenized individual is shamelessly mascotted for the satisfaction of the team’s own ego.
- An individual with autism has a special skill that is lauded as extraordinary all over the news, failing to realize that people, no matter what neurotype, all have varying degrees of skill.
Secondly, that which is genuinely an extraordinary quality is treated as a defining characteristic of a person with disabilities, ignoring their humanity and exoticizing them into an object manufactured for the viewing pleasure of an audience, normally in fear of the reality of disability. This character with disabilities is “special”. This character is “just like us.” This character is so amazing, that they have become normal. So, which is it?
If a portrayal is guilty of using “inspiration porn,” the subject or character simply doesn’t get to be human. They don’t get to be varied or complex. Often times, fictional representations of disability aren’t even brought to life by actors with actual disabilities. If a wheelchair is used in narrative fiction, chances are it is simply a prop. If a storyline involving mental illness is explored, tired and trite stereotypes are on display. The character is often portrayed as nothing more than their illness or disability.
For disability narrative to be effective and genuine, it has to start from a place of humility. The overwhelmingly likelihood is that a production team, writers’ room, or newsroom presently constructs a story without any insiders’ perspective. Increasing the presence of staff members with disabilities should open up the possibility for a variety of points of view to be shared; many of which may not have been thought of before.
For works of fiction, messages of inclusion can be more subtle. A character with disabilities is usually observed as having an effect on the non-disabled characters around them, but the focus is rarely on how the disabled character views the world. Filmmakers and TV producers ought to let characters with disabilities be protagonists every once and a while, and let them be more than their struggle.
Furthermore, a character doesn’t need to be written as having a disability from the outset. Actors with disabilities can simply be cast in the same type of roles that non-disabled actors play. Subtle moments of how a disability shapes a character may be added if they fit the tone. Struggles can be incidental and not necessarily highlighted. Even for those with visible disability as their prominent identity, there may be a unique way that a person with disabilities interacts with the social and cultural landscape which a non-disabled person never had to adapt to. Anyone can have a disability, and for those that do, it’s not always a conscious focal point of their lives at every turn. But like any identity, it can affect how anyone perceives a given situation. Social interactions, romantic tendencies, travel preferences, hobbies, sense of humor, and other aspects of any person intersect at many different points in any story.
Simply put, disabled subjects in media don’t always need to be inspiring to be impressive. They don’t always need to be a “special person” to be a person. They don’t need to be made as if they are the same as an “able-bodied” subject in order to respect their humanity. Portrayal of disability doesn’t need to be stressful for a non-disabled audience, if people with disabilities are just allowed to be. We in the disability community are not here to ease anyone’s discomfort. We have our own challenges to worry about. It’s time for us to be heard, and for mainstream audiences to listen.
By: Jeremy Einbinder