Disabilities in Media: A Brief Subjective Analysis

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SybilThorn's avatar
I have used a wheelchair since I was 3; I am now 25. As a child, I yearned to see a reflection of myself in media and my parents went to great lengths to find any books, movies, and TV series that featured people with disabilities. I filled my mind with these characters and their stories, letting them inspire me to live life to the absolute fullest.

It was always a disappointment to me that there weren't many people like me shown in media, despite disabled individuals constituting the largest minority in the world (an estimated 1 out of every 5 people has some disability). Failure to include disabled individuals in any media portrayal of the world is a harmful failure to depict the world as it actually is. A failure that perpetuates both the stigmas against disabled individuals & the ignorance of many non-disabled individuals to the truth of the lives of disabled individuals and contributes exponentially to both the plague of prejudices and bigotry that infects our world & to the rampant low self-esteem, depression, and other related issues that are so prevalent in modern society.

Adding one or two disabled characters or giving already existing characters plotlines that revolve around a disability doesn't fix the problem because "token" characters and forced/throwaway plots more often than not rely solely on dangerous stereotypes that, in the best case scenario, rob the disabled community of humanized characterizations that are accurately three-dimensional and well developed &, in the worst case, undermine the self-worth of disabled individuals and encourage and perpetuate prejudices.
Even as a child, it was frustrating to me that many disabled characters that were portrayed weren't positive depictions of disability, often either being condemned to the perpetual role of pathetically unhappy victim or fated to somehow be "cured" of their disability. For instance, the only Disney Princess who I could see as disabled was Ariel, who wishes to have working legs so that she could find love with Prince Eric. I longed and still long for a Princess who is happy with herself as she is, disability and all, and a Prince who falls in love with her, not even caring that she's disabled. I wanted a story of a disabled Princess who didn't want to be "fixed" because she knew that she wasn't actually broken, a story that involved a great adventure that didn't end in being magically "healed."

Furthermore, disability is often used as a tool to set a character apart from others, typically either by giving heroes some "tragedy" to overcome or by giving villains some "grotesque" or "frightening" quality. For instance, in one comicbook storyline, Batman was paralyzed. For a while he struggled with his injury, but then he was miraculously healed in time to once more save Gotham, a moment clearly meant to be an inspirational depiction of triumph over tragedy. His disability served no purpose other than to give him an obstacle to overcome and the fact that he is physically "cured" as opposed to him emotionally/mentally accepting his paralysis and learning to adapt just makes this entire storyline something of a throwaway plot. For an example of how disability is often used to characterize villains, one need look no further than common urban legends and horror stories. Many of these tales stigmatize mental illness and disability, as they often begin with a patient, understood to be the villain of the story, escaping from a mental hospital or psychology ward. Furthermore, many, like the well-known Hook Man legend, vilify a disability itself by attributing it to the villain as a method of distancing them from other "normal" characters and depicting this otherness as in some way either grotesque or frightening. This convention has been used so often that in modern media disability is often a distinguishing feature of a villain. For instance, in the cartoon Inspector Gadget, Doctor Claw, the main villain, is only ever shown from shoulders to waist and it is his mechanical prosthetic arm that distinguishes him.

No, what is needed is a more realistic ratio of disabled to non-disabled characters and more storylines that both accurately and positively depict disability without relying on stereotypes such as the perpetual victim who just wants to be cured, the inspirational hero who gets cured or otherwise overcomes the "great struggle" of disability, or the pariah villain who is distinguished by their disability as different so somehow frightening. As a child, I knew that these stories were important to tell, both for the empowerment of the disabled community and for the reason of showing the non-disabled community that individuals with disabilities are no different or less capable than anyone else. As an adult, I'm even more certain that these types of stories are vital and, as an actor, artist, and writer who uses a wheelchair, I have dedicated myself to doing what I can to make sure that these tales are told.

It was for this reason that I initially founded
:icondisabled-dartist: and it is for this reason that :icondisabled-dartist:'s first contest revolves around the task of creating Original Characters with disabilities. We hope that this contest will inspire artists to broaden their own horizons by truly exploring this practically untapped reservoir of potential, thus bringing the world closer to the time when disability will no longer be stigmatized but will be accurately & positively depicted in the majority of media and the ratio of disabled to non-disabled characters will realistically reflect the world's populace.

If you are interested in entering this contest, click the thumbnail below. If you would like to donate to this contest, please contact
The Original Character Contest | The Theme | The Categories | Contest Rules | Prizes & Other Awards | Judging & Criteria | Inspiration |

:icondisabled-dartist: is pleased to announce our first contest! In total, we will give out 13,180:points: and more in prizes!
Members and non-members are both allowed to participate! Everyone is eligible to compete in three categories (see below) for 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Places. Members will have an additional chance to win an award, as 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Honorable Mentions will be selected from entries by our members (Note: placing in the Overall competition will disqualify a member from receiving an Honorable Mention).
Contest will run from 12:00PM/Noon (EST) May 20, 2016 until 12:00AM/Midnight (EST) November 20, 2016

The Theme

- Sybil Thorn
  Founder of
© 2016 - 2022 SybilThorn
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LindArtz's avatar
It must be someone to get the ball of change rolling, so why not you! :)  

Yes, I think most people, (myself included) for the most part, are uneducated about this subject.  We only know what we see in the media, or in our personal lives, and/or the lives of our friends and loved ones.
And after considering a bit more, I think it's a subject most are probably afraid to touch.  But if made aware, that disabled people actually want this recognition and attention, maybe things will start to change.
I'll see so many people for instance, staring, or sneaking peeks at disabled individuals; then looking away when they catch their gaze.  I always wonder, why not just ask them if you want to know something. They probably would feel better if you did.  I know I ask when I want to know. And there was a time, I felt others kind of leaning in, trying to hear what was being said; so I knew there was an interest. But why so afraid?  My attitude is, I know I am approaching them in a respectful manner; so the worst that can happen is I get told it's none of my business or they don't care to discuss it.   Which has never happened. (yet) - People are people though and there's always a possibility I suppose. ^^
But my point being, I think many have the impression that disabled people just want to be left alone; to fade into the background.  Your journal helped me to express that thought, which, I didn't quite realize myself, was always brewing in the back of my own mind, subconsciously; although I never really articulated it before.

Good luck in your mission! It's a great idea and I think, with persistence it can really catch on, and thus help change a lot of people's views; and change lives. (Not just for the disabled, but for those getting to know them.  Others can learn so much from you too; from opening their doors; may even come to learn surprising things about themselves! )