Why Disability Representation in Film and TV Really Matters

The number of depictions of disability on screen has almost tripled in the last decade. There’s a host of shows with characters that have some form of disability. Take, for instance, the Netflix original Raising Dion, whose title character has chronic asthma and ADHA and whose friend is a wheelchair user. But media representation of disability is still hugely lacking. When characters with disabilities are represented they are often stuck in the background, taking on a tragic role, rather than having any positive agency in the storyline. These characters are also frequently played by non-disabled actors, further diluting the representation and not giving viewers anything tangible they can relate to.

Representation In Film And TV

A study into the media’s depiction of characters with disabilities found that across 90,000 movies and TV shows from 1920 to 2020, only 3,000 had any significant disability-related content. However, one fairly recent portrayal of disability credited as realistic and relatable is RJ Mitte’s character Walter Jr. on the hit series Breaking Bad and Micha Fowler’s character JJ on Speechless. Both characters and actors have cerebral palsy. However, letting the side down are the two recent Hollywood films, The Upside and Welcome to Marwen. While both feature characters with a disability, this time, these roles of a quadriplegic wheelchair user and amputee were filled by non-disabled actors.

Actors With Disabilities

Many actors without a disability will take their performance very seriously and carry out as much research as possible to understand more about a disability. However, it still doesn’t hide the fact that the role is likely to be best performed by someone with similar disabilities to the character. Not only does it add credibility to the entire production, but actors with a disability also have a better chance of portraying the character accurately and perhaps more importantly, without stereotyping or stigmatizing disabilities. For instance, RJ Mitte’s portrayal of Walter Jr. helped us get an insight into what a person’s life with cerebral palsy is like. It offers viewers a representation that looks and acts like them.

Why Disability Representation Is Important

Disability representation in the media is increasing. However, 95% of characters with a disability on screen are played by actors without disabilities. We still need to see many more people both in front and behind the camera to help knock down barriers for people with additional needs; not only for those who want to get into the media industry but to break down the stigma and misconceptions that still surround disabilities in society.

Disability should be in the foreground and part of the narrative in any TV or film production. The positive opportunities this can provide for people with additional needs are huge and could dramatically change how the world perceives and reacts to disabilities in the future.