What is “Good” Representation, Anyway? (Part One)

Photograph of choppy ocean
Pacific Ocean Horizon by Oscar Cortez is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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!


About Eb

I am an Autistic Disabled Filipino-USian person. I use ID-first language. My pronouns are they/their/theirs.

3 comments:

  1. You make some excellent points about the representation of individuals with disabilities. While things are constantly changing for the better, diversity is not represented in media as well as it should be. Do you believe this is more representative of the creators’ ideas or of the viewers expectations? I completely agree with you about making characters more realistic; If a popular television program starred more diverse characters, people may even begin to grow more accepting and understanding of individuals with disabilities and of different races, genders, and sexual orientations, for example.

    Diversity in computing and assistive technology are particular interests of mine and, if I have time, I may discuss some related things in my blog “The Help Desk”. This was an insightful post and I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject.

    1. Thanks for your comments and question! Creators often write what they learned to expect as audience members, I think. Lack of diversity is probably the result of a mix of both creator ideas AND audience expectations. Until creators are confronted with models of diverse disabled people, they might not question prevailing narratives about disability. Similarly, audiences who aren’t exposed to diverse disabled characters might not realize that anyone can be—or become—disabled.

      I’m also really interested in accessibility and assistive technology. Just this year I was connected with an organization that helped me access some very useful tools. Before that, I’m not sure I realized how broad the customer base is for assistive tech. I look forward to reading more about that (if you have time) on your blog.

  2. Television and film are visual media. Characters have to be seen as disabled. Invisible disabilities work in literature better than in pictures.

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