When do you get true disability representation?

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Ericka Jones

Every year many of us rush to the television to sit down and watch award shows like The Oscars, The Emmy’s, People’s Choice… etc. I am no different. I grab some sour worms, put on my cat onesie and prepare myself for this year’s Oscars. Many people were gunning for Leo to FINALLY win. I, like many in the disability community, was just hoping to have some recognition.

Disabled actors, like other minorities, have to jump through hoops just to be recognized as contenders on awards like The Oscars. This year was no different; the only winning representation of a disabled person was from Mad Max, in which an able-bodied person played an amputee. To depict an amputee, the film makers choose to digitally remove the actresses arm. The character itself was impressive in that it didn’t conform to the typical disability narrative of a person who acquires a disability being portrayed as a weak character BECAUSE OF their disability. Now imagine how powerful it could have been with an ACTUAL person with a disability. No offense to Charlize Theron but it would be nice to see.

Sadly, exclusion is the norm for disabled actors. Rather than hire actors with disabilities, movie producers seem to think it is easier to find an able-bodied actor for a role – and digitally remove a limb, or teach them how to “act” disabled,- than it is to hire an actor with that disability. The inaccurate mimicry of a disabled person is often more offensive than the casting.

Children are watching these shows. What does it say to them? For me, media instilled a deep-seated internal ableism that has been hard to shake. I am nearly 30 now and I can count on one hand movies and/or television shows that showed a person with a disability in a role that was not inspirational or horribly depressing.

Did you know that since 1989, 14 of the 27 Best Actor winners have played a character with a disability? Not so shockingly, a number of them were psychological or intellectual disabilities. Comments have been made by actors that insinuate that playing a disabled person on screen guarantees them an award. From what I have seen so far, they are not wrong.

Last year, Eddie Redmayne won awards for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. However, Marlee Matlin is the only woman with a disability who has won the Academy’s highest acting honor. In 1986, she won Best Actress for her role in “Children of a Lesser God”.

With Hawking’s biopic, it was nice to see someone receiving in home support however that is not representative of a regular Joe’s life. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a disabled non-rich person using community services? Or even a movie that touches on institutional bias that affects so many people in real life? I would love to see a movie that shows how difficult it can be for a person with a disability to leave an institution or even about the horrible treatment that many people go through while in the institution.

I do not know what the future holds but with the increasing amount of non-disabled people playing characters with disabilities on television… I guess I will have to turn my attention to The Emmy’s. My only hope is that media turns a corner and begins to pay attention to the droves of talented disabled actors and gives them the chance to show that talent off.

Contact Ericka Jones, Systems Advocate