Although people living with disability continue to see a proportionate increase in the number of characters representing them in pop culture, that representation isn’t always fair. According to industry advocates and charity the Center for Scholars & Storytellers, characters with disability continue to be depicted in outdated and cliched ways, exposing a lack of effort from writers and producers when it comes to creating truly representative art. There are, however, good examples out there, and they provide much-needed guidance on how to change the record and provide true pop culture visibility for disabled people.
Focusing on the character
One error that many writers make when creating disabled characters is to focus entirely on their condition. Disability should form part of the story, and if relevant, be discussed in terms of its challenges, but it shouldn’t define a well-written character. A good example of writers doing it correctly can be seen in Breaking Bad, and RJ Mitte’s character, Walt Jr. Both the actor and the character have cerebral palsy, and potentially spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, a specific classification that points towards impaired mobility. Despite this, the show doesn’t focus on the character’s disability. Walt Jr. is 17 years old, and spends much of the show dealing with his own identity. While cerebral palsy plays a role, it doesn’t define Walt Jr., and this is key – disability has to be written as part of life, rather than all-dominating and the only focus a character has. Notably, RJ Mitte has called for greater Hollywood representation when it comes to disability.
Part of life
That disability is a part of life, and not a defining factor, is a key principle upheld in both the book and stage versions of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As The Guardian notes, the novel won awards for its depiction of a teenager diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – though a specific diagnosis is never written in the book. Rather than letting the character be entirely defined by their condition, the book explores his life and how his condition can both help and hinder him – in one stroke helping him with completing exams, and in the other making it difficult for him to travel.
One area of disability that has rarely enjoyed proper representation and authentic writing is hearing loss. This has been addressed by the Sound of Metal which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is unusual in its attempt to truly confer the experience of what it’s like to live with hearing loss. The audience is given the ability to experience what it’s like to adapt to the condition, but, once again, the focus is not entirely on disability. The film shows how disability changes life, but doesn’t define it.
Showing disability in the light that deserves – as an important and impactful, yet not defining aspect of life – is key. These roles have provided people living with disability the opportunity to see how the media reflects them, and that’s crucial.