Media Images and Portrayals Issue


The disability community lacks access to participate in various forms of media, including film, television, web-based media, comics, and gaming as both potential employees and customers. Disabled actors are given little opportunity to audition for any roles, let alone disabled ones, and disabled crew members, including writers and directors, are seldom given the opportunity to work in the industry. Some of this is due to stigma, especially for actors who become disabled, who feel they must hide their disability to keep finding work. Others face physical barriers, including the lack of access to accessible audition locations and film sets. Misinformation abounds concerning the availability of disabled actors for casting, and in spite of there being over 4,000 disabled actors registered through Actor’s Access, SAG-AFTRA, and Inclusion in the Arts, most disabled actors only work a few days per year.

Portrayals of disability are also a problem in every form of media. How the media presents disability is imperative to how society sees and responds to disabled people. Everything, from how disabled people are treated to what kind of legislation is utilized to help the disability community, is based upon how disability is presented in the media. Typically, disability is portrayed through antiquated and harmful tropes and stereotyping. Mostly, disability is seen as something to be pitied, a form of inspiration, or as something so fantastical, disabled people cannot possibly be real. Disabled characters are often utilized as plot devices for protagonists, to help propel the main character’s story forward, thanks to their interaction with disability. Seldom are disabled characters written and portrayed as fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters with unique personalities, gender identities, racial identities, or any type of sexual orientation or expression.

In 2015, the GLAAD, Where Are We on TV report highlighted how few disabled characters are included in the media. The number of characters on television had dropped down to 0.9% from 1.4%, the year before. This report also outlined that only one character on television was depicted as having HIV. At the same time, advertising is beginning to embrace disability, which can be seen in the abundance of new commercials that include disability, like those for Target, Honey Maid and Wells Fargo.  In spite of this small amount of progress, disability is often relegated to “inspiration porn” (stories passed around the web to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves for not being disabled), thanks in large part to social media, where news reports about disabled people being “helped” by kindhearted nondisabled people, continue to spread the message that disabled people are not equal to those without disabilities, and are always relegated to the receiving end of relationships. 

NPR’s Daniel Shorr once said, “If you don’t exist in the media, then for all practical purposes, you don’t exist.”  Because people with disabilities are often invisible or when depicted, are still portrayed with archaic images, DisBeat was created to link media to the authentic voices of those with disabilities. We have a lot of work to do to change the conversation in relation to how the media depicts disability, because thirty years after the AP Stylebook included disability-savvy language, when everyday reporters bother to include people with disabilities, they still do so by referring to us as wheelchair bound, confined to a wheelchair, special needs, or differently abled. True change will not occur until we start to see disabled people being utilized in all aspects of media, and when we start to write the narrative on disability for ourselves.