Disability In the Media: TV Shows Featuring Disabled People
Representation matters. Disability in the media matters.
According to PBS, “Portrayals of [marginalized people] in the media not only affect how others see them, but it affects how they see themselves.”
People with disabilities have yet to reach proportional representation on screen. More often than not, show producers seem to miss the mark on writing and casting disabled characters. Perhaps the storyline adheres to incorrect stereotypes and offensive tropes, or the show casts non-disabled people to portray disabled characters. In either case, it’s a form of ableism, “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.” Show makers must veer away from upholding ableism in media, as it’s not an adequate or appropriate representation for disabled individuals.
In this blog post, we’re highlighting shows that recognized the importance of disability in the media and cast actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an American documentary film that won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival premiere.
The film follows Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann, a group of Camp Jened campers. Camp Janed was based in upstate New York and described as a “loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities.”
The viewer is given a glimpse into the teen group’s journey to becoming activists for the 1970s disability rights movement and fight for accessibility legislation.
Watch a story of activism and advocacy unfold in Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, available to stream on Netflix.
Deaf U is a Netflix reality docu-series that follows a group of deaf and hard of hearing students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. One of the series executive producers is Nyle DiMarco, a deaf activist, model, and actor, advocates for disability in the media and wanted to show various deaf experiences. His goal was “to show deaf people as humans, from all walks of life.”
The show introduces cast members Cheyenna Clearbrook, Rodney Burford, Tessa Lewis, Alexa Paulay-Simmons, Renate Rose, Daequan Taylor, and Dalton Taylor – each with different backgrounds, experiences, and stories to tell.
Overall, Deaf U offers much to both hearing and deaf individuals and provides a unique viewing experience. One must rely heavily on the captions and subtitles if they don’t know ASL (a usual experience for deaf and hard of hearing people).
Meet the Gallaudet University students in Deaf U, available to stream on Netflix.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is a comedy series about Nicholas, a twenty-something Australian who suddenly becomes legal guardian to his two American teen half-sisters after their father’s death.
Kayla Cromer plays the character of Matilda, Nicholas’ autistic half-sister. Cromer herself is autistic, and in an interview with Teen Vogue, her “heart stopped” when she saw the show was seeking to cast an actress with autism for the role. She said, “After reading the pilot script, I instantly fell in love with Matilda.” Notably, Kromer is one of the first autistic actors to play the role of someone who is autistic, a significant milestone for the representation of disability in the media.
The writers for Everything’s Gonna Be Okay asked Cromer to share her own stories so that the story and character were authentic to her own experiences as someone who is autistic.
Watch Kayla Cromer’s dynamic performance in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, available to stream on Freeform, Hulu, and other streaming platforms.
The Healing Powers of Dude
The Healing Powers of Dude is a comedy series on Netflix about a young boy with a social anxiety disorder who gets an emotional support dog, Dude, for support.
Sophie Kim plays Amara’s character, who Kim describes as a “theater nerd” who is “bold, witty, and chill.” Kim also loves writing, art, and singing show tunes to express emotions. The show features her singing and musical theater talents.
Sophie Kim expresses the importance of seeing disability in the media. Kim was born with congenital muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair to navigate.
Meet the intelligent and fearless Amara, played by Sophie Kim, in The Healing Powers of Dude, streaming on Netflix.
The Politician is a comedy series on Netflix that follows upper-class Santa Barbaran, Payton Hobart, in several of his political races, including a run for high school class president and New York State Senator. Payton’s ultimate goal is to become the President of the United States one day, and his group of closest friends and political advisors will do anything to help him.
One of the series recurring characters, Andrew Cashman, is a former classmate of Payton’s with cerebral palsy who helps him run in the New York State Senate race. Andrew Cashman, played by Ryan Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, is a cunning and charismatic character with the primary goal of impressing his high school crush, Infinity Jackson.
Catch Ryan Haddad’s performance in The Politician, available to stream on Netflix.
Sex Education is a British comedy-drama series about a socially awkward teenage boy and friends who set up an underground sex therapy clinic at their high school. The series is authentic, hilarious, and relatable, doing its best to depict the unchartered territory many high school students struggle to navigate, including relationships, identity, home-life, and mental health.
In season two, the audience meets Isaac, a disabled teenage boy. Isaac, who uses a wheelchair, is a troublemaker with a massive crush on one of the series main characters, Maeve. Isaac’s character is played by George Robinson, who developed tetraplegia a few years ago after a rugby accident. With just a few appearances in Season 2 of the series, we’ll hopefully get to see more of Isaac’s storyline in Season 3, set to release in late 2021.
Binge the first two seasons and get to know Isaac in Sex Education, streaming now on Netflix.
When one sees a person on screen who looks like them or has had similar life experiences, it can make a lasting impact.
These movies and television series took steps to accurately represent disability in the media by hiring actors with disabilities and avoiding harmful tropes and stereotypes. Many of the shows recognized their lack of knowledge in the space and consulted with the disabled actors when writing for their characters. This created a space for a realistic and authentic portrayal of a person with a disability, rather than one fabricated by non-disabled people.
As the saying goes, “Nothing about us without us.” The phrase, used by disability activists and advocates, rings true in the media and our society as a whole.
Image Sources (in order of appearance)
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