As a person who has cerebral palsy, I am always looking for a way to increase my advocacy efforts. I have found much success in writing articles like this one. However, while this is a powerful way to advocate, one of the most powerful and influential ways to push for change is through the media. In particular, the medium of television and film is crucial in determining how society views a group of people or how it feels about a specific issue.
People with disabilities do seem to be appearing more as main characters in mainstream television programs and film. In 2022, “CODA,” which featured deaf actors, won the Best Picture Academy Award. While this is a tremendous improvement from the past, I propose here that there is a segment of the disability population that still deserves its day in the spotlight.
I have always loved the entertainment industry but have rarely seen characters who look like me, someone who uses a wheelchair. Shows like “American Horror Story” and “Breaking Bad” have shined the spotlight on disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy by casting actors with those disabilities to portray the disabled characters in the show. However, while characters who use wheelchairs have appeared on television, they are often played by non-wheelchair users. For example, shows like ”Malcolm in the Middle,” “Glee,” “Superstore,” “Mom,” and films like “The Fundamentals of Caring” and “The Upside” have been guilty of crypt casting – a term used when a non-disabled person portrays a disabled character.
A few shows have attempted to change this. One of them was the recently canceled show “Ordinary Joe.” For those who don’t know, “Ordinary Joe” is about the life of Joe Kimbreau and the three parallel paths he could have taken in life based on a single decision made 10 years earlier at his college graduation. In all three versions of his life, there are clear benefits and hardships. In two scenarios, Joe has a disabled son who has a form of spinal muscular atrophy. The actor who plays Joe’s son Christopher, John Gluck, has a similar disability known as muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair in real life and on the show. Unfortunately, due to the show’s low ratings, it was not picked up for a second season.
Another show that cast an actual wheelchair user as the main character was “Speechless,” which despite a strong fan following and some critical acclaim, was also canceled after its third season. More inclusive television is excellent, but what message are we sending when shows like “Ordinary Joe” and “Speechless” get canceled so readily? Perhaps, for many, disability is still seen as abnormal and/or inspirational rather than part of the human condition. That being said, I believe that this lack of representation of people with disabilities – particularly those who use wheelchairs -- in television and film reflects the reality that the entertainment industry is not as all-inclusive as it claims to be. The above statement may deter some, but I consider it a challenge.
If it is truly the case that the entertainment industry is not ready to accept persons with disabilities fully, we must find other ways to tell our stories and bring the human side of disability to the forefront of the discussion. One way to do this is by casting actors and actresses with disabilities to bring a more authentic feel to projects involving characters with disabilities. This is why I believe the only way to change the direction of the debate is to attack the problem from a different angle, that is, create a disability-centered production company that aims to tell the stories of people with all types of abilities and disabilities. Although it may take some time, I believe it is the only way people with disabilities can ensure that there is nothing written or said about us without us.
I’d love to hear what you think about this proposal or any of my ideas here. You can respond by commenting under the story on the Florida Self-Advocacy Central Facebook page.