Recognizing Representations

In recent years, Disability Studies has exploded as a field in critical theory. Disability Studies seeks to bring to light what society desires to push to the side. Similar to Feminism, Disability Studies analyzes the ways in which people with disabilities are represented in media, film, and literature. Disability Studies recognizes and attempts to communicate how problematic these representations are.

According to Disability Studies, representations of people with disabilities tend to fall into one of two categories: the inspirational “supercrip” or the tragic story of lost potential.

The “supercrip” category follows success stories of people with disabilities who overcome the odds stacked against them when becoming a teacher or athlete or "insert-occupation-here." These are sensational stories that provide a sensational feeling to an audience wanting to hear about all the sensational things people are capable of doing.

The other representation is the tragic tale. These are the Million Dollar Baby stories—the stories where the person could have achieved so much if not for the unfortunate hand of cards the universe dealt them.

What most people don’t realize is how detrimental these representations are and how it hinders efforts to work toward an inclusive society. People with disabilities are shown to be superheroes-in-waiting or asking for a pity party. When readers or movie-goers have had no exposure to Disability Studies or communities of people with disabilities, they base their understanding of them on what they have seen and heard. Considering this, it’s unsurprising how oblivious people are to the existence of ableism.

In its simplest form, ableism is the belief that people who are able-bodied are superior to people with disabilities. This belief persists because of the aforementioned dichotomous representations provided by media, film, and literature.

There are so many things in our daily lives that we don't even realize are ableist. From “short bus” jokes to policies that limit accessibility to buildings and education, ableism is the sliver under everyone’s skin that goes unnoticed until it becomes dangerous. Thanks to Disability Studies, there has been activism within disability rights groups and communities to make people more aware of ableism and its effects.

One of the first major pushes from the disability rights movement regarding representation followed the release of Million Dollar Baby in 2004. The movie follows a budding boxer who becomes paralyzed in an accident. She requests assisted suicide from her coach because she “can’t be like this, Frankie.” Needless to say, disability rights activists were pissed, and they had every right to be. Characters with disabilities committing suicide is a common plot line in movies and literature. Perhaps screen writers and authors intend to show how committed a person like Maggie was to their life before the accident, but in reality, the suicides of these characters sends the message that people with disabilities don’t need to feel bad about dying.

If that wasn’t enough, the ways we talk about disabilities are equally problematic. Simple descriptions like “confined to a wheelchair” or “suffering from x-y-z condition” are as inaccurate as they are harmful. Language like this has the power to shape how people think about living with a disability. Being "confined to a wheelchair" has a vastly different connotation from "using a wheelchair." In reality, wheelchairs provide greatly increased mobility. A person who uses a wheelchair would be confined without one, not the other way around. Similarly, "suffering from MS" is different than "having MS." The language we use has very real consequences for people living with disabilities; the ways in which people approach a man using a wheelchair, or treat a deaf woman are impacted by what they know and how they understand disabilities.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, disability rights activists have been trying to push for media who report on people with disabilities to reframe the way the general population conceptualizes disabilities and the people who have them. Making minor changes in phrasing, such as changing “confined to a wheelchair” to “uses a wheelchair,” shifts the images generated in the minds of readers and leads to greater changes in the social atmosphere of American society. This is why it is of utmost importance to shift the language used in order to deliver accurate portrayals of people with disabilities. With it, we can all work to dispel the myths of disabilities, as well as the people living with them, and break down the pervasive ableism that exists in our society.

As writers, publishers, playwrights, and poets, it is our responsibility to provide truthful accounts of people’s lives. Why should the lives of people with disabilities be any different?

-- Kat McCaffery, ‘17