I was fourteen the first time I saw disability portrayed fairly accurately on television. Switched at Birth was a teen drama with a deaf protagonist. Although I am not deaf, seeing a character with a speech impediment who was neither a victim nor a victor “over” her disability made me feel validated. Growing up, I remember TV shows like That’s So Raven and The Proud Family breaking barriers and increasing diversity in the media in responsible ways, yet I never felt included. Every time I saw a disabled character, they were either minor characters who fell off of the earth after one episode, charity cases, or symbols of human endurance. Even as a child, this frustrated me. I often wondered if I was meant to “overcome” my disability or if I simply existed to make able-bodies feel better about their “superior” lives. Obviously, I exist for neither of these purposes, yet the media still perpetuates this stereotype.
I find it disturbing that this is still largely the case in 2018. Films and TV series that depict disability seldom include actual disabled actors and even less often, portray the disabled community in a realistic way. I understand that the entertainment business does not exist to portray reality, but it would be nice to see the industry be more sensitive of the ableist stereotypes it is recycling. For instance the trope in The Shape of Water that disabled women are unlovable and do not belong in human society is as tired as it is dangerous. Disabled people have been institutionalized, murdered, and ostracized for centuries. Reselling this and proclaiming it as art is disgusting and pathetic. Even more pathetic is that the film has won awards and been critically-acclaimed. The actress who played the protagonist is not even deaf, making the film even more problematic. American Sign Language is not some trend that people can wear for a few weeks–deaf culture is as real to its people as any other culture. Disability is not a costume; it is an identity, a way of existence.
Seeing disability misrepresented and generally underrepresented in film and on television disheartens me as an aspiring screenwriter. Writing has always been about unveiling and exploring a truth that I see in the world, often a truth that has previously been denied or avoided. I understand that Hollywood often does not care about this; it is a money-making machine. As a consumer, I try to be aware of the quality of the media I watch, but it certainly is not easy in 2018 when most films and shows are carbon copies of previous blockbusters and TV hits. I urge others to inform themselves and think about the implications certain storylines and portrayals have on the disabled community.
Speaking of television shows and portrayals of people with disabilities, have you watched “Speechless” on ABC? If so, what do you think of it? I’m curious to hear what you think, if you’ve watched the show.