By Jeremy Einbinder
March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, a time to celebrate and advocate for the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. One important aspect of this is the representation of people with disabilities in the media. While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in terms of accurate and diverse representation. To commemorate this month, we’ll explore the impact of media representation on disability rights and inclusion, and how better representation can lead to real-world benefits for people with disabilities.
First, let’s consider the power of representation itself. As disability rights activist and writer Alice Wong notes, “Representation is more than just seeing people who look like you—it’s also about who gets to tell their stories and who gets to frame the conversation.” When people with disabilities are left out of the stories we tell, or are only portrayed through harmful stereotypes, it reinforces the notion that they are “other” and reinforces harmful attitudes and practices towards them. On the other hand, when people with disabilities are portrayed as complex, nuanced characters, it can challenge these assumptions and shift attitudes towards greater acceptance and understanding.
But representation isn’t just about changing hearts and minds—it can also lead to material benefits for people with disabilities. For example, increased visibility of disabled people in the media can lead to greater awareness of the issues they face, which in turn can lead to policy changes, better accommodations, and increased funding for disability-related services. As disability rights lawyer Haben Girma notes, “Representation is the first step towards equality. Without visibility, we cannot exist in the world.”
Unfortunately, accurate, and diverse representation of people with disabilities is still sorely lacking in many areas of the media. According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, less than 3% of characters on television are disabled, and even when disabled characters do appear, they are often played by non-disabled actors. This lack of representation not only erases the experiences of disabled people, but also reinforces harmful stereotypes and exclusionary practices.
However, there are some positive examples of representation in the media. Some of the best portrayals of autistic people in movies and television have been accidental, according to writer and autism advocate Sarah Kurchak, who notes that “some of the most endearing portrayals of autistic people on screen are the ones that aren’t actually intended to be autistic at all.”
For example, characters like Chidi Annagonye from The Good Place, Jessica Day from New Girl, and Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit have all been speculated by fans and critics to be autistic and/or some other form of neurodivergent. While these characters were not explicitly written as autistic or neurodivergent, their portrayals have resonated with many people who see themselves reflected in these characters. In other instances, the autistic traits, for example, may be subtle and briefly explored as a possibility, but not made a focal point. The character of Abed Nadir from Community is a special case, in that the protagonist, Jeff Winger, briefly and dismissively declared, “You have Asperger’s!” to Abed in the pilot episode, presumably as an insult. In the ensuing seasons, autistic fans related so strongly to Abed’s character that the reception inspired showrunner Dan Harmon to formally pursue an Autism diagnosis. In some cases, it may be very powerful to have characters that allow for the acknowledgement of developmental and neurological differences, as well as the differences that come with other disabilities, without making that a heavy-handed aspect of the story.
Disability representation needs to be broad, varied, and rich, for us to feel truly seen, and Wong has been attempting to create just that sort of representation. Wong is the director of the Disability Visibility Project, “an online community dedicated to creating, sharing and amplifying disability media and culture,” disabilityvisibilityproject.com. In 2021, Wong updated a collection of essays and edited the release of “Disability Visibility (Adapted for Young Adults): 17 First-Person Stories for Today,” featuring reflections of 17 disabled individuals on the topics of being, becoming, doing, and connecting.
Though many of the featured authors share distressing stories about what they’ve endured as people with disabilities, there is a strong current of humor and a determined sense of self throughout this anthology that will make readers challenge their own thoughts about disability, accessibility ,and ableism. Ableism is a social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that archetypical abilities are superior.
“Disability Visibility” challenges readers to avoid viewing people with disabilities as broken, or faulty and in need of being fixed. Readers are encouraged to view people with disabilities as members of a thriving community with its own history, culture, and social importance.
There may be an innate desire in many disabled people to make their mark on the world in ways that are very different from the “typical” adult life. The average person’s vocation is not that of a writer, director, actor, or any form of content creator. However, it’s worth noting that there is an overrepresentation of neurodivergent people in the dramatic arts, as compared to the general public. According to a study by the British television network Channel 4, people with disabilities, including neurodivergent people, are overrepresented in the television industry by about 5%. This may be due in part to the fact that the arts offer a unique space for people who don’t fit into traditional workplace structures to thrive, but it also highlights the importance of self-awareness among creators, writers, and actors when conceiving of and portraying neurodivergent characters.
We are far from the ideal of being adequately represented. We are not fully integrated into society alongside the abled public. We have not realized genuine social equality. Awareness is just one stop on that long journey, but we must keep going. Wong offers reassurance for young people with disabilities. “You are enough,” Wong writes. “Don’t let anyone ever make you feel less than or unworthy of love, access, attention and care. You deserve everything.”