Diversity and disability in the media

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but the controversy over some of the ads caught my attention. These ads portrayed people with physical disabilities using prosthetics to achieve their goals. Many people (myself included) find these stories inspirational, but disability activists are crying foul because they say the ads are using disabled people to make people without disabilities feel better about themselves.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I have a physical disability called Brown-Sequard Syndrome caused by a spinal cord injury. It’s not a visibly obvious disability unless you’re watching for it, but it is painful, crippling, life-altering. I definitely pay attention to portrayals of disabilities in the media, and I do find them lacking. I want to find people “like me” on the screen or in the pages–not a token gimp in the background or a person so super-human their disability doesn’t slow them down, but a fully developed character whose physical (or mental) limitations are part of their make-up, their strengths and weaknesses.

According to some quick research on the US Center for Disease Control web site, roughly 1 in 10 Americans has a disability, and the number jumps to 1 in 5 when you look at the older segment of the population. I worked with a professor who specializes in Universal Design (the idea that it is a poorly planned environment that makes a person “disabled”–not able to function as well as other people), and he pointed out that almost everyone will be disabled at some point in their life, whether by illness, accident, other medical conditions (i.e. pregnancy), or age. Many of these people with disabilities (myself included at times) feel they are less “socially acceptable” than “normal” people.

So, having said that, I like seeing the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in the media. I do have strong objections to using human beings–whether disabled, sexually objectified, or whatever–as objects intended to sell products. Please, let’s treat people as people–not smiling stereotypes or “Tiny Tims” meant to manipulate emotions, and certainly not to sell something.

I also don’t want to see disabilities swept under the rug. Talking about disabilities and differences–and portraying them realistically–can help us to see past them to the things we have in common, and it can help people with disabilities feel like they’re a welcome and contributing part of society. I worry that attacks on these ads might make TV, movies, books, etc. hesitate to portray people with disabilities for fear of doing it “wrong.” By all means, people should point out their concerns, but let’s make it a conversation about why the portrayal bothers us and how to improve it. I would say this applies to all the stereotypes and two-dimensional characters we come across (female and ethnically diverse characters come to my mind, and I’m sure people can point out others). Hopefully talking and thinking about it will bring us one step closer to including a more representative cross-section of humanity in the characters we see and the people we look up to.