Disability Culture Series: Disability Portrayal and the Media Today (by Erin, Kids As Self Advocates, www.kasa.org)

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Tiny Tim. Helen Keller. Captain Hook. These three very different personalities have one thing in common: a disability. Tiny Tim brought tears to the eyes of young and old as he faced the adversity of hobbling around on crutches at such a tender age while enthusiastically exclaiming "God Bless us everyone!". The story of Helen Keller inspired many as we watched her face deafness, blindness, and underestimation on her way to brilliance. And Captain Hook? We scorned that bitter, scheming captain with a hook for a hand as he attempted to bring demise to the ever-magical boy in green tights. If you let these three legendary characters swirl in your brain for a minute, you just might be able to relive the heartbreaking innocence and irony of Tiny Tim's blessing, the feeling of general good as Helen Keller finally achieved the fame she so richly deserved, and the deep hatred for the despicable, evil Captain Hook.

What you likely won't realize is the typical stereotypes that these characters fulfill and have been fulfilling in the media for decades on end, disabled innocence (Tiny Tim), disabled inspiration (Helen Keller), and disabled evil (Captain Hook). Think about it. When was the last time you tripped through the crowded school halls, only to pass a child on crutches blessing random students? Chances are he worked his way through with an occasional smile, facing a well-meant "hang in there" and a few awkward, demeaning looks. And while all people in general have a bit of extraordinary in them, it's very rare that a person with a disability achieves something great enough to win the attention of the media, no matter how misguided the media's standards might be.

The "Cinema of Isolation" has been just as harsh, if not harsher for more than a century (Klepper, 1)…people with disabilities debuted in the movies with the crude "humor" of Thomas Edison's fifty second "The Fake Beggar" [an 1898 film by Thomas Edison considered to be the first film addressing disabilities in which a man pretends to be blind in order to collect some extra money and is eventually chased by the police (Ivory, 1)]. People with disabilities continued to be used for "frivolous shocks and gags" early on as in 1908's "Don't Pull My Leg", staring a stolen prosthetic leg as the main source of entertainment. Some films, such as 1931's "City Lights", refuse to deal with the (in many cases) finality of a disability. This classic Charlie Chaplin movie starred a young girl who was cured of her blindness during the duration of the film, "allowing" the story to end happily ever after.

In the past and unfortunately still today, few movies seem to contain the element of disability at the end. The movie usually concludes with the character with disabilities being cured or dying, leading the viewer to the assumption that life with a disability can in no way be rewarding or fulfilling. Many saw a light at the end of the tunnel with 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives", starring WWII vet Harold Russell, who lived with a disability in real life. Numerous members of the disability community applauded the opportunity for a person with a disability to actually portray himself in a movie…

An end to the unfair portrayal and unrealistic depiction of people with disabilities has yet to see an end, however. Films even as late as 1989, such as "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" featured Robert Pryor and Gene Wilder milking puns and laughs from visual and hearing impairments. Enduring cinema characters such as Peter Pan's Captain Hook and Star War's Darth Vader (who requires a mechanical breathing device to live) continue to portray their characters with malicious bitterness in thousands of VCRs everyday. This only compounds the damage that has been done, is being done, and will be done to the character of disabled people worldwide…

One would think that honest, open global journalism would be a redemption from the stereotypical views of society with it's scandalous breakthrough news and exposes. Sadly, a study entitled News Coverage of Disability Issues in the fall of 1998 reported that "Almost seventy percent of the stories concerning disability had no identifiable source with a disability in it . . . " claims study author Beth Haller, concerning print media stories (Stothers, 1).

Just what does this mean to us as readers? People with disabilities simply aren't being consulted on disability issues, or any other issues for that matter. "Print journalists are much more likely to use people with disabilities as examples in their news stories rather than as sources," an article from The Center For An Accessible Society stated…"The message that may be getting to the public . . . (is that) . . . people with disabilities can't speak for themselves." the 1998 study stated.

"After decades of stereotyped, often demeaning portrayals, has Hollywood gotten any better at showing the complexity of living with a disability?" This question, posed by a 1997 article in MDA Publications, deserves an answer (Ivory, 1). The realistic view of disabilities seems simple. All the disability community asks is that we be portrayed as people who happen to have a disability. While many recent choice cinema selections have been lucky enough to have directors who understand this request, many movies still lack…    

According to a 2001 article from webzine iCan.com writer Nicole Bondi, movie studios still look at a disability role as an easy way to an Oscar. Bondi points out that it's worked in the past for classics such as “ Forrest Gump”, “Rain Man”, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”. Despite the pitfalls, the last several years have brought increasing growth to the maturity of the handling of disabled roles. Movies such as “Notting Hill” and “The Replacements” included characters in wheelchairs (Bondi, 1).

These characters were neither essential to the plot or given special attention. They were simply people. “The Replacements” was also home to a deaf football player, and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” includes deafness and sign language. The fact that characters with disabilities are being added into movies as extras is extremely normalizing and encouraging…Critically acclaimed A Beautiful Mind captured the life and genius of John Nash over a fifty year period ( Duncan, 1). Viewers were able to take in the onset and battle of Nash's schizophrenia and experience it as though they themselves were Nash…    

Most media outlets are not so precise and realistic with their portrayals of true life with a disability, however. Falsehoods regarding disabilities are spoon fed to society at large today, only to be regurgitated as ridiculous pressures on individuals with disabilities to conform to a misleading societal standard of beauty… So just how has over a century of media lies and scattered truths affected us as disabled individuals? Is our self perception warped and self esteem damaged as a result of false images and stereotypes?...

While nearly everyone, whether they have a disability or not, endures internal difficulties with accepting themselves in contrast to our societal standard of beauty, the problem only compounds for individuals with disabilities. Many people have disabilities that in some way alter their physical appearance from what is considered "normal"…How much farther do individuals with a disability have to go to reach the pinnacle of so called "perfection" the media demands today? Internal pressures to conform are only heightened for those with disabilities.

While the internal, self imposed pressures spurred on by the media vex and contort our self image, outside forces are at work too. Cultural pressure seems to be ever increasing. "Within this culture, having a disability is viewed negatively. This notion is supported by the fact that the lives of . . . (individuals) . . .with different disabilities are not reflected in the media. We are invisible. However, when our lives are spoken of, . . . (they) . . . are distorted through romantic or bizarre portrayals of child-like dependency, monster-like anger or super-human feats," declared an article on a disability website (Cool, 2)…

While characters with disabilities in the media are seldom portrayed realistically, society toasts the stereotype and immediately pours it out on others with disabilities. This can lead to added pressure on an individual with a disability to perform (in contrast to the stereotype of disabled inspiration), to prove themselves as upstanding members of society (in contrast to the stereotype of disabled evil), or to prove themselves simply human (in contrast to the stereotype of disabled innocence).

 I recently read an article in the Fall 2001 edition of Profile, a publication of The Milton J. Dance Jr. Head and Neck Rehabilitation Center. "Patients undergoing treatment (for cancer of the head and neck) often experience changes to body image, speech, and swallowing. Following treatment, public interaction may provide unexpected anxiety and reactions that may be insensitive. A social worker can help patients to adjust to their new image and/or function, to understand public reaction and to utilize coping strategies." the article read (Self, 1)…    

Sometimes I wonder why our society's ideals are what they are. Who was originally born blonde and shapely that so attracted someone somewhere to deem him/her society's finest? How did the trend even catch on? What if, far back in time at the foundation of our culture, someone had deemed an individual with a "facial disfigurement" and a cane beautiful? Would society even had considered it a "disfigurement" at all? Societal ideals that cause us to question our self image are nothing more learned traditions and customs passed down through generations. We'll examine the history of the treatment of individuals with disabilities in the next installment of Disability Culture



  1. Ivory, Phil. Disabilities in the Media: THE MOVIES. 1997. MDA Publications. 08 June 2002  www.mdausa.org/publications/Quest/q44movies.html.
  2. Klepper, Robert. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. 1996. The Silents Majority. 08 June 2002  www.silentsmajority.com/FeaturedBook/book19.htm.
  3. Krentz, Christopher. Extraordinary Bodies: Literature and Disabilities. May 2000. University of Virginia. 08 June 2002  www.georgetown.edu/crossroads/syllabi/extrabod.html.
  4. Bondi, Nicole. 'West Wing' portrayal of MS breaks ground. 5 Apr. 2001. iCan! Online. 20 June 2002.
  5. Duncan, Barbara. Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes . 2002. Disability World. 09 June 2002.
  6. Ivory, Phil. Disabilities in the Media: THE MOVIES. 1997. MDA Publications. 09 June 2002.
  7. Williams, Stothers. Center Study Looks At Coverage . The Center for an Accessible Society. 18 June 2002.
  8. Wolfe, Kathi. "He's Your Inspiration, Not Mine." The Washington Post 01 July 2001.
  9. Where Do Women with Disabilities Fit In? 21 Jan. 1998. Disability Cool. 02 July 2002.
  10. "Self Image in Head and Neck Cancer Patients: A Social Worker's Perspective." Profile (2001).
  11. Mirror Mirror. Social Issues Research Centere. 02 July 2002.

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