The New York Times recently ran an article on how “Actors With Disabilities Are Ready, Willing and Able to Take More Roles.” While the piece focused on ability-inclusive theater casting, it also got me thinking about the kind of disabled characters I want to see in media (besides “any”).
We all know television is miles ahead of film these days in terms of showcasing a broader spectrum of people and bodies. But disability rarely makes the cut—and when it does, the same old tropes often bog it down. I’m hopeful, though, that TV in particular has the potential to introduce richer disabled people with stronger context and more to say than “look how sad my life is.”
Who is the character I wish existed? In my mind, she’s a queer woman, which I know is asking for a lot by TV standards already—but this is Autostraddle and I can do what I want. So with that premise in mind, let me introduce you, dear TV writers, to the character you should bring on board next season.
1) She’s been disabled her entire life.
TV and movies both enjoy milking acquired disability for all it’s worth. There’s drama built right in: she begins the story as one kind of person and emerges another. Writes itself, right? But disability as the result of an accident or illness, while just as valid as the kind you bring with you into the world, is the easiest to swallow because it’s the origin story people already know. And that’s because we’re most comfortable understanding disability as necessarily tragic—not something as dull as “the way you were born.”
Consistently and (almost) exclusively depicting disability as something that happens to you gets people in the habit of fearing it. That opens the door to pity and obsession over what might have been as the go-to storylines for any disabled character. Grief is a real, necessary, messy part of living in a disabled body—even for those of us who’ve always had one—so that’s not to say you need to (or should) table it altogether. But a character disabled from birth creates opportunities to show it from fresher angles, too: as a body type, a valuable identity, and a way of existing in the world.
2) She doesn’t “just so happen” to be disabled.
“Just so happens” is another one of those bones (a la “despite”) people like to throw us as a compliment. I get it all the time: “She’s a writer, graduated college, works full-time, lives on her own… and just so happens to have cerebral palsy.” See the problem there? It implies that disability comes second to those other traits, and might even offset them if not for the power of my everyday heroism (barf). It belongs tacked on at the end—as if the best thing we can do as disabled people is make our disabilities count for as little as possible.
But the truth is that disability takes up space in your life. What is so terrible about acknowledging that? I think about it all the time—but I’m also not upset. Recognizing disability as vital to this character’s experience would take the teeth out of it and move us away from the disability-as-tragedy trope we readily deploy. Of course, you don’t want to overcorrect into tokenism and make it the only thing she has going on—but that’s just called writing a complex character (which I know you can do).
3) She uses a mobility aid other than a manual chair.
Thanks to the International Symbol of Access, manual wheelchairs are the disability signifiers most people understand. But disability has so many more looks than that (seriously, there are entire expos devoted to it), and there’s value in highlighting one audiences might not be so used to. It gives us the chance to make other kinds of bodies palatable and understandable. It takes the fear and uncertainty out of those bodies and illustrates that there are, in fact, as many ways to be disabled as there are disabled people. (Sidebar: this is one of the reasons I’m excited to give ABC’s Speechless a shot—the son uses a power wheelchair.)
4) She is played by a disabled actress of color.
Disability is white in the American imagination. Because this country understands whiteness as neutral-to-superior, stacking disability onto a white body makes it less scary and not so much of a Bad Thing. I’ve benefited from my whiteness in more ways than I even realize when navigating the world as a disabled woman, everywhere from my morning commute to my doctor’s appointments to, yes, media portrayals. White disabled people are allowed to grow from cute children into inspirational adults. Disabled people of color rarely get a narrative at all (and if they do, it’s because they had to fight for it). Read through the excellent #disabilitytoowhite if you want to see how deep this goes. In the words of its originator, Vilissa Thompson:
Improving representation necessarily means featuring people of color and actual disabled people. I’m not universally opposed to able-bodied actors playing disabled characters; reaching beyond your own experience is part of the job. But many of the rationales people give for why we almost never see disabled actors on screen are pretty lazy. “We just couldn’t find a disabled person for the role.” Did you audition any? Because if so, fine—but experience shows us that doesn’t always happen. It’s not that you couldn’t, it’s that you didn’t. The problem isn’t automatically a lack of talent; it’s also a lack of interest and opportunity.
“We needed someone who could show the before-and-after.” How about instead of constantly writing roles that require that before-and-after (see point number one), we take a crack at some more nuanced stories? Disability is a rich world; I promise “here’s how I got this way” isn’t all it has to offer. You won’t always need an able-bodied actor. And as actress Katy Sullivan pointed out in the Times piece, “using performers with disabilities brings a layer of authenticity you don’t have to go searching for.”
5) She has friends (of all abilities) who get it.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, friendship isn’t really a concept associated with disabled people. We’re thought to be confusing, easily offended, or pitiable, but not really worth befriending. There’s a long history of disability yielding social isolation (whether medically-sanctioned or tacitly accepted). Giving a disabled character a complex social life—especially if you also depict the tricky parts of socializing in an able-bodied world—would defy expectations that disability makes it impossible for anyone to like you and that disabled friends are just too much work.
To that end, she needs to have both disabled and able-bodied friends. I know casting more than one disabled role is basically unheard of in TV land. Not an excuse! As crucial as it is to show able-bodied people respecting disability, disabled characters can’t be reduced to tokens. We deserve community and to not always have to explain ourselves. And there’s precedent—while SundanceTV’s Push Girls didn’t do it all for me, it did nail the concept of a disabled friend group. Able-bodied approval isn’t all you need.
6) She never endures an able-bodied dream sequence.
We get it, able-bodied people—you have it pretty good. But becoming you is not always our birthday wish, Christmas wish, or only wish. Portraying an able body as our sole desire in life reinforces the frankly tired assumption that we must be miserable right now. Yes, disability is exhausting and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it makes all of us sad. Do you really think we have nothing better to hope for? Yikes.
I want a character who does more than wish she was someone else. Her goals and fantasies need to extend beyond how her body looks and behaves. And if you’re depicting a version of the world where anything is possible, it’s especially important that disability still show up—because otherwise, it looks like a misfortune we’d scrub from our lives if we could.
7) Yes, she has a sex life.
Bonus points if some of the sex is, y’know, a little rough—like the kind many TV characters have—and not just tender lovemaking that feels like a good deed. Sleeping with a disabled person is not a humanitarian cause. We deserve to be romanced, yes, but also desired. And for the love of God, don’t make “disabled person finally gets laid!” your episode’s point or punchline. Disabled sexuality isn’t trivial; it’s real and it deserves equivalent space.
8) We see her laughing about her disability—and getting angry about something else.
It’s assumed that you should treat disabled people and our disabilities with kid gloves, as if both are so sad and fragile you just can’t react any other way. But living in a world designed for people who aren’t you creates plenty of humor. Fish out of water is the oldest trick in the comedy book; it’s only because we’re afraid of disability conceptually that so few writers take advantage. If you’re worried about accidentally bullying your disabled character, here’s a hint: make ableism (i.e. the absurd behavior and situations we face), rather than disabled bodies, the butt of your joke. As long as you’re laughing with and not at, you’re probably in the clear. Let disabled people laugh; we know how important it is.
On the other hand, disabled folks are not really allowed access to anger unless it’s about our disability—and even if it isn’t, people assume we’re really just bitter cripples. Yes, disability rage can generate some compelling Tyrion-in-court vibes, but again, the culprit there is ableism and a society that’s biased against us rather than disability itself. And there’s plenty for your disabled character to be mad at besides: maybe she just lost her job! She got dumped! Her friends are being impossible! Current events are an endless cycle of death and despair! Give her the full spectrum of emotions you would afford anyone else.
9) She does something besides educate able-bodied people.
Because the only lesson we seem to be good for is “you could have it so much worse!”. Remember when Finn introduced Rachel to his paralyzed friend so she’d realize that laryngitis isn’t all that bad? And he told her about how he tried to drown himself in the backyard pool, and she was supposed to give him voice lessons, and then we never saw him again? Right. (Classic Glee.)
Disabled people are not cautionary tales. We are real people living real lives, and it is not our job to remind anyone that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Those storylines are not about us; they’re about the able-bodied people who get to “learn what’s really important” and come away forever changed. Meanwhile, you guessed it—we just get to be miserable for all time. We deserve more complexity and compassion than that in our portrayals.
10) She is happy.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do. With schlock like Me Before You (still! In 2016!) romanticizing the lie that disability is a fate worse than death, we need fulfilled, confident, and downright overjoyed disabled characters on screen. Not because of what they’ve endured or overcome or taught you, but because of who they are. Glad to live their own lives. Excited for what’s ahead. Proud, flawed, interesting, and infuriating—not just the tragic stars of glorified morality plays.
Disabled people who like ourselves exist in the real world. Now that you know we’re out here, you have no excuse not to do better. We deserve more than what we’ve gotten so far. It’s not that hard.