Trailers for new films with disabled characters and disability themes almost always raise a certain amount of curiosity and excitement. They also tend to generate a more specific, familiar, and perplexing combination of hope and anxiety in people with disabilities.
On the one hand, millions of disabled people still hunger for greater representation in popular culture. We want to be seen, and as authentically portrayed as possible. We hope that the more disabled people appear in movies and TV, the better the community at large will understand people with disabilities in real life.
On the other hand, some disability depictions are terrible. Many are well-intentioned but cringey. And even the best disability portrayals raise recurring questions about what, exactly disabled people want to say about ourselves. What do we actually want our messages about disability to be?
And it’s not just about disability on screen. It’s still hard to agree on what we are supposed to think and feel about people with disabilities in every sense and setting. Disability life – real disability life – is full of contradictions. Ideas and feelings about disability can often seem incoherent, to non-disabled people and to disabled people ourselves. It’s sometimes tempting to give in to frustration about this, or even suspect some sort of delusion or dishonesty in disability messaging.
Maybe a more sensible approach to dealing with these contradictions in disability thinking is to understand why disabled people so often have no choice but to balance conflicting forces, needs, feelings, and messages.
Here are three examples:
1. Any disability visibility is better than none – or is it?
Is it better to see disability portrayed poorly, or not at all? Disabled people debate this every time they see depictions of disability in popular culture. That’s because disabled people have been invisible for so long that we crave seeing ourselves in culture, in almost any form other than outright villains. At the same time, a bad or inauthentic disabled character or storyline can make us feel worse, and sometimes do real harm.
It’s a conflict that’s never quite resolved:
- Disabled people need to be seen in popular culture and talked about as much as possible to reduce ableism.
- Some depictions of disabled people and discussions about disability are worse than nothing and should be criticized and avoided.
Fortunately, in 2023 we are well past the stage where the mere appearance of disability in movies or TV is a breakthrough we feel obligated to celebrate. “Forrest Gump’s” depiction of a man with intellectual disability is no longer remarkable simply for placing a disabled man at the center of the story. As disabled people can now critique its sentimentality, questionable use of humor, and sloppy inaccuracies from a position of confidence.
We can and should examine disability depictions and images critically, and insist on not just more but better.
We can ask whether Bobby Farrelley’s upcoming movie about a basketball team of people with intellectual disabilities offers more nuanced, less cringey disability portrayals than the immature, slapstick jokes and over-the-top zaniness in how we see Mary’s intellectually disabled brother Warren in the Farrelley brothers’ 1998 comedy “There’s Something About Mary.” We can expect better than mere presence, and criticize bad depictions without feeling ungrateful. We can be honest about disliking some beloved disability films of the past, while noting their historical significance and looking for better in future movies and TV shows. The contradictions are still there, but disabled people are increasingly able to balance them into a coherent approach to media depictions of disability.
2. Are we OK, or aren’t we?
One of the core prejudices about disabled people is that we are sad and incapable – at best sentimentally “inspirational,” at worst mired in suffering and perhaps better off dead.That makes us want to be seen instead as happy, competent, and cool.
And yet, disabled life is hard, and some of us, many of us in fact, are not entirely OK. This is another way we are so often conflicted about the messages we want to send about ourselves:
- Disability is neither terrible nor tragic. Most disabled people are doing fine. There’s no need to feel sorry for us, speak to us sweetly, heap praise on our smallest accomplishments, or try to rescue or fix us.
- Disability is very difficult. Lots of disabled people actually are isolated, excluded, and struggle with many hardships. We need recognition, validation, and both material and emotional support.
These messages seem opposite. But they aren’t contradictory. Both can be true at the same time.
Disability can sometimes be miserable all by itself, but not always. It’s much more often how other people and institutions respond to our disabilities that tends to make life with disability difficult. Understanding this difference is absolutely essential to living in some kind of balance with both the hardships and the everyday normality of having disabilities.
The message we generally want to convey is: “WE are okay. But our situation isn’t always okay, and we can use some strong allies.”
We don’t have to choose between relentless optimism and 24/7, rage or despair. Like other people’s lives, our lives with disabilities are usually a mix of positive and negative forces and experiences. Above all, we don’t have to mold our moods to fit one of two simplistic images of disability. And we can acknowledge the disability community’s strengths and assets, while never being afraid to say exactly what’s wrong and should be fixed about disabled people’s place in a just society.
3. You have the power to improve your own life, except when you don’t.
Are positive thinking and hard work enough to overcome disability? Are we personally responsible for our own accomplishments or misfortunes? Or are social forces like ableism, inadequate support services, and inaccessibility the reason why our lives are less free and secure? It’s an important question for disabled people because we are constantly pulled in two directions to address our hardships … between hard work, self-help discipline, and personal empowerment – and collective disability rights and justice activism to fight the forces of ableism.
Again there are conflicting beliefs about whether individual effort and virtue, or collective action and mutual support are most important in disabled people’s lives:
- Disabled people have the ability and strength to improve our own individual lives, through hard work, determination, and a deliberately cultivated positive mental attitude. Each of us has it within our power to make our lives better. It’s not beyond our control.
This can be a relief to people who might otherwise feel completely helpless, at the mercy of hostile people and indifferent institutions. On the other hand …
- Disabled people’s lives and potential are often severely limited by inadequate services and supports, and by systemic ableism that are beyond any one disabled person’s control. Good habits and a positive mindset alone can only get you so far. And many forms of ableism simply can’t be overcome by individual initiative.
While this idea may seem discouraging, it can also be a relief to know that your own misfortunes are not entirely your fault, or a reflection on your character and effort.
Which view to emphasize depends a lot on what you need.
Some disabled people are so swamped by hardships, barriers, and misery that what they need most is a dose of personal empowerment and optimism – even if it’s unrealistic. But other disabled people put too much emphasis on self-improvement, and are either unaware of or ignore systemic problems that make everything harder – and for some impossible – for everyone with disabilities. And when positivity and hard work don’t overcome flights of stairs and under-funded services, the self-help, personal responsibility perspective can make you feel like a failure.
Some combination of the two approaches seems like the best way to go.
We can have confidence in ourselves — our talents and capabilities, while at the same time calling out the social structures and policies that get in our way and thwart the wellbeing and ambitions of other disabled people. We can take responsibility for our own actions and choices, while not hesitating to call out others when they are, in fact, oppressing us. We can try to be better people ourselves, while trying just as hard to build better communities.
Life with disabilities is full of contradictions. An important key to understanding disabled people – and for disabled people understanding ourselves – is understanding that opposite, even annoyingly contradictory ideas, feelings, and messages about disability can all be true at once.