NYCC '16

Where are the Wheelchairs: Disability in Media

David Stehman ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Steve Way opened NYCC’s Disability in Media panel on Friday by listing statistics of disability representation in television: “In the 2015-2016 television season, in the top 5 highest rated shows, twenty characters have a disability and only one of the characters are actually played by a person with a disability. On streaming shows, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, the top 5 most-watched shows have seventeen characters with a disability with only four of the actors actually having a disability.”

Steve Way
Steve Way

Examples of abled-bodied actors playing disabled roles are seen in shows and movies like Superstore, Daredevil, and Me Before You, both of which came out this year. Dominick Evans, a trans man in a wheelchair, added his view of the casting crisis over Skype: “We are not seeing intersectionality in media. We are fighting for scraps for roles we aren’t even getting.”

The reason why disabled actors cannot get disabled roles is rooted in assumptions and stereotypes. Maysoon Zayid gave some examples of the feedback she received when trying to act with cerebral palsy: “They don’t think we can handle it. They’d say ‘Where are we gonna find disabled actors?’ There are thousands of disabled actors in the union fighting to be seen. Some even say, ‘We need a big name.’ Well how are we gonna be a big name if we don’t get casted?”

Dominick Evans via Skype
Dominick Evans via Skype

Evans referenced his Bachelor’s Degree in film school, and how he faced problems even by accomplishing a genuine achievement like graduating college: “They told me, ‘You only got through film school because you’re in a wheelchair. They just let you through because they felt sorry for you.’ I never worked so hard in my life. Back then we worked with 16mm film, and I couldn’t physically cut the film, so I had someone describe what happens in each scene so I knew when to have them cut the film. But people still say, ‘disabled people are lazy.’”

Another reason for the misconception of people with disabilities is the actual portrayals in film and TV. Common tropes is the angry misanthrope, someone who is bitter and upset because of their disability, the villain, who hates the world because they are able-bodied, and as seen in Me Before You, the suicidal. Way opened up about the reality of suicidal thoughts in people with disabilities, and how movies like Million Dollar Baby perpetuate the stigma that people with disabilities shouldn’t be alive: “To some people, it may be a movie. To other people, it’s real life.”

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Jillian Mercado

Jillian Mercado, only of the only models with disability in her agency, explained the “miracle cure” trope that fills the media in movies like Forrest Gump and Heidi: “Imagine being a child seeing an image of you for the first time in your life only for them to be cured hours later.”

Zayid mentioned how Speechless, the new show on ABC is being praised for its inclusion of a character with cerebral palsy being portrayed by an actual actor with the disability. She mentioned that this is not the first time ABC has put disability on screen, referencing a TV show from the 80s featuring people with disabilities, and how the media fails to remember this: “The number of disabled characters has gone down. It happens so infrequently, we often forget the history.”

Maysoon Zayid and Day Al-Mohamed
Maysoon Zayid and Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed brought up the trend of disabled characters often being the only disabled characters in the entire show. “Add one black character, it’s fine. Add two black characters, it’s also fine. Add three, and it becomes a ‘black show,’ and that’s ‘not marketable.’ It’s the same for people with disabilities. We roam in packs, might as well give disabled characters a community on screen.”

Way concluded the panel by advising viewers to refuse watching shows that miscast characters with disabilities: “If the audience doesn’t want to back it up, it won’t happen.”

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