While certain forms of inequality, like racism and sexism, receive ample attention in mainstream mass media, ableism is a source of inequity that continues to pathologize disabled individuals through skewed representations. Like many social issues of our generation, disability rights have been difficult to achieve because they are weaved into the fabric of society. It is important to note that certain strides for disability rights have been made, such as the elimination of the “r-word” from acceptable vernacular. However, our structures, institutions, systems, and attitudes remain unchanged, which has affected how disabilities are portrayed in mass media. It is important to understand the relationship between cultural representations of bodies and people’s experiences as it contributes to our understanding of the conditions that shape the lives of people with physical disabilities and differences.
One of the first disabled popular characters was in Fox’s hit TV show “Glee.” Kevin McHale played Artie Abrams, a nerdy member of Mckinley High’s Glee Club who happened to be paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. While having a main character on a hit TV show was a major step toward disability rights, Artie’s portrayal was insensitive, misinformed, and ableist. For one, Kevin McHale (unlike Artie) is not paralyzed from the waist down. Instead of casting an actor who may have been wheelchair-ridden, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchock, and Ian Brennen chose to hire someone who was able-bodied and could be cast in any role– not just one that calls for a wheelchair, but one that would require walking, running, dancing, etc. In trying to pursue an accurate representation of disabled minorities, it is vital to cast those who are actually disabled and would not be able to pursue other roles due to their disability.
Aside from inequity in terms of casting, Artie’s characterization on the show perpetuated certain myths about the life of a disabled person. Artie’s representation was limited to his nerdy persona characterized by glasses, sweater vests, and suspenders. In an episode where the trials and tribulations of Artie’s life as a wheelchair-ridden high school student are explored, his friends and peers first appear to be unaware and not understanding of his challenges. However, as the episode progresses his friends are able to gain his perspective by spending the week in wheelchairs. They learn to appreciate how much harder he has to work to keep up (marked by Glee Club rendition of ‘Proud Mary’ performed by all able-bodied members in wheelchairs). Not only is it unrealistic for a group of high school students to become so understanding of the burden of disability within a week, but glorifying the struggles of students in wheelchairs via jovial song proves to be insensitive of the realities of living in an ableist society.
Ableist representations are not distant memories of past times. If anything, Sia’s newest movie Music reveals how ableist mentalities permeate the minds of some of the most popular and progressive artists. In casting Maddie Ziegler to play the lead role of a girl on the autism spectrum, Sia received heavy criticism from the autistic community. Like the casting misstep made in Glee, Sia cast an able-bodied teen who does not struggle getting roles in Hollywood because of a disability. Instead of casting an autistic individual who could enrich the character with firsthand experience, Sia selected Ziegler.
The composition of the movie itself contains strobing lights, overwhelming visuals, and a caricature of autistic mannerisms which are all overly stimulating graphics for members of the autistic community to absorb. Whether or not Ziegler is responsible for contriving and conceptualizing the exaggerated portrayal herself, there is no denying that the fact that she is not autistic, and her heavily fabricated performance makes the film appear as a display of mockery.
These are just two popular examples of disabled people continuing to be misrepresented in mass media, which only serves to reinforce stereotypes. Because of these representations, disabled people are wrongly portrayed as being inadequate friends or lovers. The notion that media reflects social attitudes while setting limits of possibility is exemplified through these two popular texts.
What does this reveal, then? This reinforces the socially constructed phenomenon that disabled people aren’t equipped to hold positions in government, public health, education, business, and powerful or visible roles across social life. Ableist media representations define what is socially imaginable, and how our society continues to view and treat members of the disabled community. Speaking out for change has never been so necessary.
Cover photo: Rolling Stones