Disabled at Vanderbilt: Where are the characters like me?

Taking disability representation seriously


Bruce Brookshire

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | [email protected]

Claire Barnett

You’re probably familiar with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was started in 2015 in response to the fact that every single actor nominated for leading and supporting Oscars was white. Many expressed frustration and anger that the talents and accomplishments of people of color were overlooked. This incident began a national conversation about the value of seeing diversity represented in media.

Experts agree that seeing your own demographic positively portrayed in pop culture is essential to the development of healthy self esteem. A 2012 study found that after children of different genders and races watched television, only the white boys did not report lower self esteem.

While this conversation has largely centered around race, ethnicity and gender, it also applies to disability. Did you know that just two actors with disabilities have ever won Academy Awards, and the most recent one was more than 30 years ago? And approximately 20 percent of Americans have disabilities, but only 2 percent of our television characters have disabilities. Of that 2 percent, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors.

Think about that last statistic – 95 percent of disabled TV characters are played by able-bodied actors. Why do we accept this? Our society has collectively decided that wearing blackface is disrespectful, insulting and wrong. While there is certainly a difference between these two situations, the common theme is someone “dressing up” as a member of a marginalized community. And often, disabled people find the media representations of them to be patronizing and inaccurate.

The media industry needs to step up and engage with people who actually have disabilities as they cast these roles. Movie and TV-makers also need to write more disabled characters – if 1/5 of Americans have a disability, why do only 1/50 of our characters reflect that? These changes would lead to more accurate and positive representations of disabled individuals. And it is important to point out that the “Supercrip” archetype is NOT a positive representation. If you ever start to describe a disabled person as “inspiring,” please bite your tongue. If you don’t understand why, check out the Supercrip article linked above or my article on disability language.

Okay, so hopefully you’re on board with the idea of stronger disability representation in pop culture. Now let’s bring this issue closer to home.

Can you name a leader in your community who is disabled (visibly or invisibly)? Maybe a politician, clergyman, school administrator or business professional. Here at Vanderbilt, it could be a club president or resident advisor. If you can think of one (or hopefully more) people, that’s encouraging. Ideally it means that your community is structured in a way that allows disabled people equal access to these opportunities.

If you can’t think of anyone, you should ask yourself why. Could it be that disabled individuals face barriers that prevent their equal access? Or could it be that your community stigmatizes disability in such a way that those leaders with invisible disabilities have chosen not to disclose them? Either way, solving the problem involves cultural change, and I would encourage you to start this conversation in your own circles.

If we begin to take the issue of disability representation seriously, I’m confident that we can create a world where disabled people are positive role models both in the media and in our real-life communities.