This post contains minor spoilers for West Wing, Joan of Arcadia, Girls with Slingshots, and the first Twilight movie.
I get asked all the time to evaluate some work or another on whether or not it does disability “right”. This is a bit of a problem, of course - despite having opinions (a lot of them, according to someone in my thesis course), I haven’t always seen the work in question. Also, my tastes don’t run mainstream - if I’ve liked a movie, it probably tanked at the box office, and not because it was arty and pretentious. (I liked Last Action Hero. And Push. These are not deep movies, nor are they terribly good, and I think they both fail on every -ism you can imagine. I have no idea why I liked them, either.)
There’s also the problem that I shouldn’t be the final arbitrator of what is “good” and “right”. We didn’t all get together, have an election, and vote me the go-to person on disability representation. But, I have opinions, express them loudly and all over the place, and so people want to pick my brain. I get it.
After a few times of being asked what made disability in pop culture look “right” to me, I made a short list. This list isn’t about acting (two of the actors in the shows I praise are currently non-disabled), but on writing and presentation.
1. Characters with disabilities have storylines and backgrounds beyond their disability.
I haven’t seen all of West Wing, but I did watch a lot of episodes featuring Joey Lucas. Basically, she was a pollster brought in to discuss polling-related things with the President’s team. She was played by Martlee Matlin, and thus, like Matlin, is deaf. Which the show managed to never make a very big deal of.
Oh, sure, Lucas often had a ‘terp with her, and you can’t miss that Matlin has the so-called deaf accent. But there was never a Very Special Episode where we learned about what it was like for Lucas to be deaf. Instead, there were references to Lucas’ religious background, she had sexual tension with one of the main characters, she had a history, she was respected for her skills, etc, etc, etc. Basically, Joey Lucas lived her life as part of the lives of people associated with the West Wing.
It’s almost like she was a fully-developed character, rather than a one-note opportunity for “diversity”.
2. If you’re writing a character that has a sudden disability caused by accident or illness, they’re not the only person who needs to adjust.
It’s always convenient to write a character who has no family and no history, just “car accident, now in wheelchair”, but it’s pretty much the most unrealistic thing I can think of. The way Joan of Arcadia handled this was much better.
In short: Kevin Girardi was the golden-boy of his family, with a sports scholarship and a college (maybe pro?) career ahead of him. Then, he was in a car accident. The show (which focuses on his younger sister, Joan) starts 18 months later, and the family dynamics are painfully realistic. Kevin’s father is awkward and just wants everything to go away, so he pretends that nothing’s changed, just that Kevin now has to do everything seated. Kevin’s mom is determined to learn Everything About Disability Ever and is constantly pushing Kevin to Be More and Do More, regardless of how Kevin feels about things. His younger brother is bitter that Kevin went from getting the bulk of the attention because he was the golden boy to getting the bulk of the attention because of his disability. His younger sister seems to be okay, but since Joan’s the main character, her reactions get to be a bit more complex. To say nothing of the nuances of Kevin’s reactions.
The family dynamics were so true to Don’s experience (although he was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, he was diagnosed with it at 5 - the same year his father was diagnosed with incurable cancer) that we actually had to take a break from watching the show rather than push through the DVD set.
A sudden disability caused by accident or disease isn’t just going to produce one person who has difficulty adjusting to the new situation. Friends and family will also need to adjust, and including that adjustment for everyone gives your story a lot more depth and nuance.
3. If you’re writing disability jokes, the butt of the joke doesn’t have to be the disability.
I’m not actually a fan of Girls with Slingshots and thus haven’t read the whole run, but I did read the recent wedding-related storyline because it featured two new ‘bit’ characters: Soo Lin, who is blind, and Melody, who is deaf. (Sadly, the strips don’t seem to have a transcript that I can find. I’ve written up a transcript for the relevant strips.) [Soo Lin’s first appearance] [Melody’s first appearance]
What I like about the jokes in this strip are that they’re all over the place. Some are about how clueless people can be about blindness. Some are disability-related humour as told by people with disabilities. I think my favourite is this joke about getting a bad ‘terp. There are others, of course.
The jokes are all based around disability, sure. But the jokes aren’t “ha ha ha, look at the crippled person having difficulties getting around!” And at no point is the humour about a very special lesson for anyone else. Soo Lin and Melody are part of the joke, they aren’t the butt of it.
4. A spotlight is not necessary.
There’s this one 5-second scene in the first Twilight movie. I remember it vividly: Jacob (one of Bella’s love interests) and Billy drive up to see Bella and her father, Charlie. Billy’s driving. They park. Without any comment or making a big deal out of it, Jacob gets Billy’s wheelchair out of the back of the pick-up truck, Billy gets into the wheelchair, and the fathers go inside to watch the game while the teenagers talk.
This is, seriously, my favourite scene in any movie I’ve watched in the past two years. There’s no dramatics! There’s no gasp in shock! There’s no “Hey, how is this dude driving when he’s in a wheelchair!” There’s no LOOK LOOK! at how edgy we’re being by having a disabled character!” There’s just… life. As it is.
I haven’t read the Twilight books, so I don’t know how disability was treated there, and I haven’t seen the new movie, so I don’t know if it continues, but I really felt they got it right.
This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. Word limits mean I can’t go on my rant about research being your friend, or the suggestion that people who want to write a character with a disability actually spend some time talking to multiple people with that disability (since not everyone has the same experience - shocking, I know). I also can’t get into stories that focus on the person with a disability rather than how hard it is for the currently non-disabled to cope. But I hope this gives people an idea of what a “good” work with disability can look like.
What are some of your favourite examples of “good” presentations of disability in media & pop culture?