If you could pick three aspects of how disability is represented in the media and tell them this needs to change, what aspects would you pick? I have a few, but I know there are dozens of things I would say and changes I would make. When I first had the idea for this post, I wasn’t sure I should write it. I didn’t know what I wanted to say on the topic of disability and the media’s representation of it, because I’m not a part of that industry, at least not at the time of writing this, I’m a spectator. Maybe that’s the point. I wanted to see myself represented, just like millions of girls are thrilled when they see someone that represents. So If I had the opportunity to talk about disability representation in media here is way I would say
I am :
- a college graduate
- a fashion lover
- Reader in my spare time
- A fan of all things Christmas
I am all these things, more even, yet all of that is overshadowed because I sit in a wheelchair and many people, most people, can’t look beyond that. Society doesn’t teach them to. Being a part of the disabled community is a huge part of my identity, my life, however it is not all of my story.
Forgive me for repeating myself if you are a long time reader then you know what I’m going to say. I started The Sitting Beauty Diaries because I wanted to share my love of fashion and my experiences as a disabled woman because according to the world’s misconceptions those aspects are mutually exclusive. To be honest growing up, disabled and just about anything seemed mutually exclusive be it professional such as teacher, nurse, dancer, makeup artist, personal trainer, or actor/ actress or personal like wife and mother. I didn’t see them, and if I and my friends, other members of the disabled community who knew we were capable of more than brush that the world painted us with, didn’t see them, how were others who were not a part of our community supposed to learn it too?
As millennial I grew up in the age of Internet, I remember a time before Facebook & Instagram where the role models we young women had come from magazines and television put the problem with that is I didn’t see her: Who is “her” the girl that looked like me, a woman in a wheelchair.
During my earlier teen years I remember reading magazines like seventeen with friends reading the articles and looking at clothes talking about what I would wear and styles I just wish would go away. When it came to television it was pretty similar, girls and women who I could relate to in style, who had my hair and my skin color, but they were all doing one thing I never could…..
The thing is, growing up, I didn’t see these characters, but I didn’t expect to either because it just wasn’t done. I saw Black women who were relatable to me growing up in shows like the animated The Proud Family & watching reruns of Sister, Sister. Being a young woman with dark skin had its challenges at times, but most of the issues I faced growing up centered around my disability and only I could navigate that, if only I’d known better then.
Disability & Representation In The Media: Why It Matters
Life Imitates Art
Disability is not seen in a positive light, I’ve been asked questions about my capabilities mentally and physically for as long as I can remember. There were instances where I would answer questions and others where I wouldn’t. Over time there were ones that I’d come to expect and on occasion someone would surprise me and not always in a good way. I wondered why people would have such low expectations for me just because I was disabled. The first time I saw a character with a disability depicted on screen, it started to make sense. I can’t remember the specifics, but the character was unintelligent and incapable, almost existing, not living. This is what societal depictions of life with a disability led millions to believe. People with disabilities had few expectations of themselves unless they had an amazing support system and didn’t mind being the first, and able-bodied people end up thinking little of the capabilities of the person beyond the disability because to them they didn’t exist.
It’s 2022, the American With Disabilities Act is 32 years old yet we still have people who stare at others out and about using a mobility aid whether it’s a wheelchair, walker, or cane. The world has become more aware of people with disabilities and is making an effort to be inclusive, nevertheless a shift in perspective of the capabilities of people with disabilities can only happen if people see what we in disabled community have known all along – we are just like you with a few different experience.
How do we do that?
The television and film industry is a powerful tool, because there is something for everyone. Additionally there are iconic movies that the majority of people know For example, there’s Home Alone, The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, just to name a few and barring The Polar Express, these movies have had multiple remakes for a reason. If you have a character with a disability you give visibility and representation to people with disabilities who are watching and hopefully, possibly cause a shift in perspective for people who are able-bodied. Introducing characters with disabilities is part of the solution, after all we would have so many industries dedicated to young women seeing someone who looked like them in the media if it didn’t matter right?
If You Can See Her, Then You Know It’s Possible
Okay, this phrase is not as catchy as the one for the see her campaign, but you know I’m right. Shifting the perspectives that have enabled society to label people with disabilities is important, but how we see ourselves matters just a little bit more.
Having people constantly underestimate you and continuously proving yourself is exhausting, that said, it’s what people with disabilities do day in and day out in various aspects of our lives. However, constantly having to do so impacts your mindset so to have someone who looks like and has faced some of the same challenges as you, serves as a reminder that if this person did it, made it then maybe I can too. This is why accurate disability representation in the media matters.
The See Her Be Her campaign is all about showing girls and young women that there is someone who looks like them who made it, who accomplished the thing that she is dreaming of, who is using her voice to speak out on issues that matter to her. This woman is powerful.
It’s the end of 2022, brands are waking up: Barbie now has an inclusive line of dolls who have disabilities. These dolls are hard of hearing, amputees, and wheelchair users even use their mobility aids as accessories. When I first discovered this, I was ecstatic, not only because the dolls exist though that was reason enough to celebrate, but because of what Barbie stood for, “inspiring the limitless potential in every girl” according to their website In the world of fashion, Tommy Hilfiger launched Tommy Adaptive, an adaptive fashion line which brought adaptive fashion into the spotlight and more big brands hurried to follow.
So my question is this:
Where is the disability representation in media campaigns like See Her Be Her? I would love to see women in wheelchairs: professionals: mothers athletes all featured in these campaigns because then… then girls in wheelchairs will know that they can do it too. These girls will know that someone like them made it, but if they had to be first at something, well at least they’d have aforementioned women as role models and motivation to keep them going.
Authenticity & Empowerment
Did you know that despite the changes we’ve seen with brands becoming more disability inclusive over the last few years and the entertainment industry increasing the number of characters with disabilities that less than 5 percent of those characters were played by someone with a disability? For that matter, when a disabled character is featured, that the story:
- Revolves around disability
- Has a disabled character that has to be helped in someone by an able-bodied person or teaches the able-bodied person a lesson
“When disability is a part of a character’s story, too often content can position people with disabilities as someone to pity or someone to cure, instead of portraying disabled individuals as full members of our society.” said Lauren Applebaum, vice president of Respect Ability, a non-profit organization that analyzed the representation of characters with disabilities for the past 100 years in article from the New York Times. She goes on to say “that even though the number of disabled characters continues to increase, approximately 95 percent of those roles are still portrayed by actors who do not have disabilities” .
As a woman with a disability, this disappoints me because when a role calls for a disability and Hollywood casts an able bodied actor it’s not an authentic representation of a huge aspect of that character’s life, my life, or the life of someone in the disabled community. When Glee was on, I didn’t watch it for most of its initial run, a friend, who is able-bodied, kept telling me to give it a chance though his reasoning had nothing to do with “Artie Abrams”. Nevertheless after the first few episodes I went to google to see if the actor who portrayed him was actually a wheelchair user and do you want to take a wild guess at what I found? He was not, big surprise there. I was disappointed of course, but I expected it. It doesn’t make sense to me to do anything, but hire an actor who has the disability you are trying to portray, but that’s just me. Will this be able to happen 100% of the time? Right now probably not, but we should be able to WAY better than 5%.
One reason that I’m happy that my friend insisted I watch Glee, is because it was where I first saw an actor or actress in a wheelchair where the show and or role wasn’t entirely about the chair. When I discovered that I was happy for my community especially since Ali Stroker has only gone on to star in more roles where being a wheelchair user wasn’t a main aspect of the role it just was, barring a Blue Bloods episode where she was advocating for herself and I loved the way it was done. Another actress I was happy to see in a role that had nothing to do with her disability is Lauren Spencer, who I watched in a recent N.C.I.S episode. This is the kind of disability representation in media we need, the kind that normalizes disability so when the next generation is growing up, disability won’t be such a mystery to those who don’t have them, nor will they doubt the capabilities of people with disabilities they come across. Additionally I hope that means that girls and young women will have various authentic role models and an easier time going after what they want in life.
If you stuck with me this long, I want to thank you for reading this whole article because at times I may write content that seems frivolous to some, but it stems from this: the desperate need for authentic representation of living with a disability in characters that call for it in addition to casting disabled actors and actresses in roles that don’t. CBS has done a great job with this especially with the N.C.I.S franchise and the various characters as well as another show or two on the network. Before I digress any further, my point was that be it the entertainment or fashion industries, or the plethora of options in the working world, disability needs visibility and accurate depictions to start conversations, dispel misguided misrepresentations, and shift perspectives to create a society where disability is seen for what it is a unique value. If society is not being shown people with disabilities in this industry and other popular ones, how will they learn to normalize it and give people with disabilities the same respect and value they would give anyone else? Disability is not less than, a constant pity party, or any number of things that the aforementioned industries and society have perceived to be and the world needs to see that too.