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The Fight for Proper Representation of Disability on Screen

By: Karis Fields

Photo: Variety – Source

When it comes to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters in film and television, Hollywood has done a better job at depicting more accurate representations of these groups throughout the past couple of years - even if there’s still some ways to go. However, while the film and television industry has seemed to be progressive in terms of representing diversity on screen, there is one group that Hollywood is still struggling to get authentically right in their depictions - people with disability(ies). Although disability has been recognized to a small extent, the stereotypical ways disabled people and characters get portrayed on screen has left those in the community with a bad taste in their mouths.

The Center for Scholars & Storytellers recently conducted a survey with various people with disabilities, seeking their opinions of how the media has represented them in the past 1-2 years. Overall, a little over 50% of the survey’s participants said that the portrayal and representation of their identities onscreen has stayed the same in the past 1-2 years. 42% of women have said that they feel the facts of their identity that matter to them most are portrayed well onscreen. 75% of men and 57% of nonbinary individuals agree with this. Lastly, 68% of women reported wanting better quality over quantity representation of their disability on screen while 65% of men want more quantity over quality.

When someone says they want more accurate representation, what exactly do they mean by that? For reference, let’s use the controversy that ensued around Sia’s directorial debut Music to help define accurate versus inaccurate representation. Sia’s movie Music tells the story of Zu (Kate Hudson), a newly sober drug dealer, receiving the news that she is to become the sole guardian of her half-sister Music (Maddie Ziegler), a young girl on the autism spectrum. Before diving further into the more controversial depictions of autism in this film, something that immediately didn’t sit right with the autistic community was the fact that a non-autistic actor would be portraying an autistic character on screen.

Upon the release of the first trailer, many concerned individuals took to Twitter to voice their concerns, tagging Sia to some of their posts. Sia replied to some of them (which have since been deleted). In response to one individual asking why Sia wouldn’t cast an actually autistic person in the part of Music, and stating that her way of portraying such a character was incredibly defensive, Sia rebutted that if she were to cast someone with Music’s disability then it would have been cruel instead of kind.

Other than seemingly ableist casting, the movie’s portrayal of autism has been deemed rather stereotypical and offensive and the ways in which the neurotypical characters in Music’s life handle her disability are oftentimes dangerous. Ziegler’s directed portrayal of Music depicts a version of autism normalized by neurotypical media. Flapping hands, jutted out front teeth, intelligible grunts as form of communication, and overexaggerated meltdowns and stims. This is not to say that this was the first time the media has portrayed autism in this way. Even critically acclaimed and award winning films have been subject to depicting this harmful stereotype of autism, including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Rain Man. However, despite these examples of inaccurate representation of autism on screen, there have been some wins as far as representation goes, at least on television.

While Dan Harmon’s NBC sitcom, Community, cast a neurotypical actor in the role of the autistic, film fixated Abed (played by Danny Pudi), the portrayal is still relatively accurate and praised among the autistic community. Additionally, through the creation and writing of Abed, Harmon noticed how alike he was to his character, ultimately seeking autism testing of his own and getting a proper diagnosis.

The best example of accurate autism representation in television is from the ABC show, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Not only does the show spotlight an autistic young woman as its main lead, including strong autistic supporting characters, it does so with actors who are actually autistic in real life. Kayla Cromer plays the main character of Matilda in the show. Cromer’s portrayal of this character is a breath of fresh air. This character is unapologetically open about her disability. She is intelligible, seeks social interaction with others, dreams of studying music at Julliard, and craves adult experiences by the end of her senior year of high school.

Now, while there have been some hopeful wins with accurate representation of autism on screen, we have also recently begun to see representation of the deaf community.

Movies like A Quiet Place and CODA decided to cast deaf actors in their films as the main characters. These movies have also introduced ASL and subtitles to cinemas across the US. More recently, Marvel cast their first deaf superhero in their latest release Eternals. Deaf actor Lauren Ridloff plays the speedster, Makkari, who communicates with her co-stars on screen through ASL. Additionally, Ridloff taught the cast ASL behind the scenes. While Ridloff’s Makkari herself is deaf, her disability isn’t treated like a big deal in the film. It is instead treated like the norm.

Hollywood can, and needs to, learn more from these various depictions of disability in film, television, etc. As a disabled person myself, I spent years seeking myself on screen. And the closest I have gotten is through Abed and Matilda. However, I know there are other people out there, both like myself and those different from me, who crave and demand to see more accurate and authentic portrayals of disability in the media.


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