Trying to find good representations of disabled people in entertainment media can be like that line from Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere / nor any drop to drink.”
Disabled characters are all over the place. Popular examples include:
- Charles “Corky” Thacher, a white man with Down Syndrome from the 1989–1993 ABC television show, Life Goes On
- Dr. Greg House, a white man with a limp and chronic pain in one leg from the 2004–2012 Fox television show, House
- Professor Charles Xavier, a white man who uses a wheelchair from the Marvel Comics X-Men franchise
- Tyrion Lannister, a white man whom George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and the HBO show based on them, Game of Thrones) refer to as a “dwarf.”
Notice anything about this list? It mainly includes visibly disabled white men. While disabled characters who don’t fit these categories exist, it’s still one of the most common ways disabled people are represented in entertainment.
This is problematic because it contributes to an overarching narrative of disability that does not reflect reality. Disabled people are not exclusively white cisgender heterosexual visibly disabled men with access to unlimited resources and supports, but you would hardly know that from the stories in which disabled characters feature.
One of the first things a good disabled character needs to be is realistic, and part of being realistic means exploring complex identities. It’s so exciting to see representations of disabled people of color, queer disabled people, trans disabled people and invisibly disabled people in my favorite entertainment. Let’s have more of that!
In future posts, I’ll discuss more about the problematic ways disability and disabled characters appear in media. I have so many more thoughts to share — and I welcome hearing yours in the comments section!