Heng: Disability and the media

One of the constant themes for commentators on disability issues is the way that disabled people are portrayed in the media. Why is it so important? Like it or not, depictions of us on television, film or in literature are strong influences on the way mainstream society sees us, and the way we see ourselves.

“Disabled” can often be shorthand for “evil” – look no further than the villains in The Da Vinci Code: one is a self-mutilating albino, and the other is an embittered cripple.

Every Bond villain is either physically disfigured (Dr No) or mentally ill. Even in comic parodies, like Austin Powers, the disabled characters are people who are mentally and physically scarred, and those of restricted growth are evil, and figures of fun.

The media also use disability as shorthand for tragic or heroic – Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. It’s a good career move for performers too: as Kate Winslet’s character says in the comedy Extras, “playing a cripple is the surest way to an Oscar nomination”.

Soap operas occasionally decide to use disabled characters (usually in wheelchairs) but either ignore the practicalities of life with a disability – the wheelchair user in Emmerdale drove, but miraculously managed to do this without the use of his feet or hand controls – or turn it into an “issue”, like Mark, the HIV-positive character in EastEnders.

If you want to see a different approach, watch The Station Agent, an independent US film released in 2003 about a young man with dwarfism who is tired of being an object of curiosity wherever he goes in his home city. He decides to live in solitude, in a disused train station, but can’t escape the attention of his neighbours. The way he deals with other people’s perceptions highlights the choice many of us make: live life in solitude or play your differences for all they are worth. Finbar, the hero, finds a third way.
If producers and writers want to use disabled characters, they should watch this.

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