Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities

“They’re all the same”

Part of stereotyping is the attitude that all members of a particular group are the same, or else fall into a very small number of types. This is particularly true in the few cases where persons with a disability appear in media

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters report found that disabled “individuals are viewed as the objects of pity and depicted as having the same attributes and characteristics no matter what the disability may be.” Similarly, the website Media and Disability, an organization advocating for broader representation of people with disabilities, points out that “disabled people, when they feature at all, continue to be all too often portrayed as either remarkable and heroic, or dependent victims.”

Not only are people with disabilities stereotyped, the full range of disabilities is not reflected in media portrayals. Lynne Roper of Stirling Media Research Institute, in her article “Disability in Media,” notes that “wheelchairs tend to predominate… since they are an iconic sign of disability. Most actors playing disabled characters are, however, not disabled. The wheelchair allows the character to be obviously disabled, whilst still looking ‘normal’, and does not therefore present any major challenges for audience identification.”

Victim

Perhaps the most common stereotype of persons with disabilities is the victim, a character who is presented as a helpless object of pity or sympathy. Jenny Morris, in her article “A Feminist Perspective” in the collection Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media describes images of disability in the media as “…a metaphor…for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across, in the same way that ‘beauty’ is used. In doing this, the writer draws on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with a humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings in the reader or audience.” Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or John Merrick in The Elephant Man are examples of disabled characters whose disability is used by the author to earn sympathy from the audience.

The victim stereotype may also be used for comedy, using characters’ disabilities – such as Mister Magoo’s blindness or Forrest Gump’s intellectual disability – to place them in humorous situations.

Hero

The flip side of the victim stereotype is the hero, the character who proves her worth by overcoming her disability. Roper calls this type the Supercrip: “Supercrips are people who conform to the individual model by overcoming [their] disability and becoming more ‘normal’, in a heroic way… An example of a ‘Supercrip’ is the Irish writer Christy Brown, who described his book My Left Foot as his ‘plucky little cripple story’.” The extreme end of this spectrum includes superheroes with disabilities such as Oracle (a wheelchair-bound heroine who uses her computer skills to fight crime), Silhouette (who fights villains using martial arts despite being partially paralyzed) and most famously Daredevil (whose blindness has enhanced his other senses to superhuman levels). This stereotype is also often found in video games, where – in the few cases where persons with disabilities appear at all – they nearly always possess superhuman abilities as a result, such as the supernaturally skilled blind fighters in Soulcalibur and Mortal Kombat.

While at first glance this may seem like a better stereotype than ‘victim’, a positive stereotype is still a stereotype. Roper points out some of the problems that arise from this view of disability:

  • It focuses on the individual who “succeeds” in overcoming her disability, rather than the many others who must live with theirs
  • It presents disability as a challenge which the character must overcome in order to be “normal”
  • It makes audiences feel better about the condition of persons with a disability without having to accommodate them, reinforcing the notion that disability can be overcome if only the person would “try hard enough”
  • “Hero” roles are nearly always played by non-disabled actors, presenting a false picture of disability (compare Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot to the real Christy Brown)
      

Villain

The third common stereotype is the villain. Throughout history physical disabilities have been used to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. More recently, characters have been portrayed as being driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their disability. In both the TV series and film Wild Wild West, for instance, the villainous Doctor Loveless has a disability (in the TV show he is a dwarf; in the movie he has lost everything below the waist). As Roper puts it, “popular cultural images of disability commonly perpetuate negative stereotypes, and often pander to the voyeuristic tendencies of non-disabled audiences.”

Mental illness is often presented as a motivation for villains: Media and Disability points out that “some disabilities receive particularly poor representation. Mental illness has all too frequently (and disproportionately) been linked in programmes with violent crime, even though there is no evidence to support this mis-portrayal.” A fairly recent and striking example is the character of The Joker in the film The Dark Knight, who is described in the movie as being a schizophrenic. Not only is mental illness not linked to violence but, as Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson point out in Grand Theft Childhood: the Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games, “Most people who suffer from a mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.” (Italics in original.) Dr. Peter Byrne, a psychiatrist at Newham University Hospital in London and an expert on the portrayal of mental illness in film, has said that “mental health stereotypes have not changed in over a century of cinema.” Nor are these stereotypes only found in dramatic films, he says: “If anything, the comedy is crueler.”

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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