It has been a quarter of a century since Nancy Mairs wrote her essay Disability about the media’s weak portrayal of people with disabilities and only recently has there been in a change their representation on the small and big screens. While there is now a significantly larger number of persons with disabilities represented on TV and in movies, the roles still lack the character depth and screen time given to able-bodied characters. Disability rights activists say that characters with disabilities are still too often used as secondary characters, for comedic relief, or for emotionally charged singular episodes.
Despite the negative stereotypes in the media’s depiction of disabled people, there are a few positive portrayals of disabled characters that are giving disabled rights activists hope. Literature, media and pop culture have spawned offensive stereotypes that have persisted throughout the years and can be found in extremely famous works such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Disabled characters throughout literature are often the victims of violence and are often mistreated by the story’s able-bodied characters.
The stereotyping and misrepresentation of these characters has been broken down into groups; The object of pity, sinister or evil, the eternally innocent, and the victims of violence. These tropes have endured because they are constantly reinforced in our mass media culture. Among the negative stereotypes, the media does give us a few positive depictions of disabled characters. One of the most currently watched TV shows, Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte plays Walt Jr. and offers an honest and heavily praised portrayal of a teenager with cerebral palsy.
Disabled rights activists have praised the depth of the character and RJ Mitte’s ability to allow the character’s personality and wit to take center stage, rather than his condition. Actor RJ Mitte’s is himself afflicted with a mild form of cerebral palsy and is able to draw from his own experiences with the condition to add nuances to the characters disability and how he handles it. Also on Breaking Bad, a different character suffers from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, representing those with mental disabilities.
Fed up with the media’s poor representation of themselves, many have taken to using new social media tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr to directly communicate with society. Shane Burcaw of LaughingatmyNightmare. com is twenty years old and has spinal muscular atrophy.
Armed with an incredible sense of humor, Shane has taken the media into his own hands to create a brand for himself. He is the sole creator of his charity organization, Laughing at my Nightmare and he maintains a personal blog allowing anyone an in depth look at what life is like for someone with his disability. He is using media to empower himself, his cause and to break down stereotypes.
While many disabled rights activists argue that the media’s depiction of people with disabilities has not drastically changed, a shift has begun. Through better screen writing and through self-empowering social media tools people with disabilities are starting to feel more comfortable with how they are being represented on TV and in film. Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Paris: Gosselin, 1831. Print. Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hill, 1843. Print. Burcaw, Shane. Laughingatmynightmare. com. Shane Burcaw, Jan 2 2009. May 31 2013.