Its been established that representation in children’s media can be crucial to expose children to other cultures and experiences. But for underrepresented children, it's can also be vital to see themselves having agency in the story and achieving wonderful things. Exposure to different media can help children develop emotionally and socially, so how does an inaccurate and harmful representation of disabilities and disfigurement affect today’s children? CDC statistics place 26% of the US population as having some form of disability; 3% of kids are born with a birth defect that could present with a visual difference, and thousands more acquire disabilities or disfigurements. Children are exposed to disability and disfigurement every day.
Disfigurement and disability don’t often make it into kids' media, despite its presence in their own lives. If it is present, it's very likely one of the main stereotypical presentations which can end up bringing more harm than good. If a child doesn’t have any disabled or disfigured people present in their life, then they don’t have many real-life examples that can combat the misinformation modeled through media. Children don’t inherently judge others; they pick up assumptions from their environment, and stories have always been an astonishingly efficient method of sharing beliefs. That remains true for disabilities as well, and inaccurate or harmful portrayals are especially impactful on the children who have the conditions that are being portrayed. Those portrayals are statistically more likely to have been written and played by someone unfamiliar with the disabled experience.
Within disability stereotypes, there are three main types and then subtypes that are often condition-specific, such as ADHD characters being the comedic relief sidekick or the autistic math genius. The main three are as follows; The Villain, The Supercrip, and The Pitied.
- The Villain stereotype is when a villain either became evil because of their disability or disfigurement or acquired them through villainy. This is very common with disfigurements especially—just look at Batman’s the Joker or Twoface. The Detective Pikachu film had a twist that turned disability into the true villain. Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman disfigured herself in pursuit of evil. Disability is often at the core of their characterization: motivation or consequence.
- The Supercrip stereotype is when the character overcomes their disability, so it’s like they aren’t even actually disabled. Examples include Percy Jackson, who has dyslexia so he can read ancient Greek instead, and Daredevil from Marvel, who is blind and has superhuman hearing and senses that ‘compensate’ for the loss. It’s also common in ‘overcoming’ narratives when disability stories are framed as a hurdle that if a disabled person fights hard enough, they’ll overcome their disability. The responsibility falls on the individual rather than any widespread changes to support the struggle for accessibility.
- The Pity narrative can be a Heartwarming story, or a Tragedy, depending on the ending, but at the core of it is pity. Characters who are pitiable are often framed as innocent victims of their disability or disfigurement. Examples include Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tiny Tim from the Christmas Carol. They’re often used as a lesson for those around them, to be kind, to be thankful: to be happy they’re not disabled too.
These stereotypes aren’t usually the result of a nondisabled screenwriter sitting down and knowingly perpetuating the negative views of disabled people, but rather unintentionally calling upon these tropes without realizing the implications. These tropes are common, known, and comfortable, and largely uncontested. There aren’t many disabled people behind the camera, or on set, helping construct these stories. Disabled stories become sanitized for the nondisabled viewers. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been significant improvements in the representation of disabilities in media. In 2019 disabled characters were 2.3% of all speaking characters across the top-grossing 100 films. A study in 2020 showed that disability in family films jumped to an all-time high of 8%—showing improvement from past years. Though it’s still underrepresented, predominant concerns remain. Within the increase in representation, there is also an increase in misrepresentation. Misrepresentation can also be attributed to the actors and writers. Most media about disabled people involves very few disabled people. An older study from 2016 said that only 5% of disabled characters were played by disabled actors, a fact that hasn’t been challenged since. That both decreases authenticity in the character and withdraws a disabled role from disabled actors who often face hiring discrimination.
There is bias on the writing side as well because those without lived experience often fall back on tropes when they write disabled characters. Either it’s what they know, or what they know will make a more impactful story—of the just over 60 disabled roles that were nominated for best actor at the Oscars by 2020, 27 were winners, and only two were actually disabled actors. As for children’s literature, disfigurement is extremely rare, with organizations created to support disfigured children and their families having a rather sad list of reading material. There’s a book to teach face-typical children not to get upset at visually different people, and of course, Wonder by R.J. Palacio took the craniofacial differences community by storm. But R.J. Palacio is herself face-typical, as is her family. She cites the epiphany moment for her book as being when her son cried about another child who had a facial difference—so where does her bias shine through? Her assumptions about the lives of disfigured children are plain on the page, and by making the book a lesson on choosing kindness, she has turned every disfigured student into a lesson for their peers. And then the actor was face-typical, with prosthetics to mimic a disfigured face, but the underlying structure was visually typical, a big change from the books and real life. That was not the responsibility of the face-typical actor; he was a child and was not aware of the landmine. However, it was difficult for many disfigured people who saw someone put on makeup to pretend that they were a ‘monster’ in appearance, but that actor got to take off the makeup at the end of the day, while their own faces and trauma stayed.
Children especially look to media as they grow and change and have their own experiences. Nondisabled students have a wide variety of role models to look up to and see themselves or their goals reflected, while disabled and disfigured kids only see themselves through the lens of the nondisabled. It's even more difficult to find role models for disabled and/or disfigured children who are also from a racial, ethnic, or religious marginalized identity. Statistically disabled and disfigured children are more likely to be ostracized and bullied, so if they don’t fit a stereotype category cleanly, their non-disabled peers will likely choose for them. Kids notice when the only people on TV who look like a disabled or disabled peer are villains, and they notice when people on TV always make jokes about specific behaviors. And if they are kind enough, if they take the high road enough, eventually they will earn friends through weathering the ostracization. Children don’t need to earn friends or be surrounded by unreasonable expectations, they deserve affection free of strings, like any other child.
Children are impressionable—if they are told something enough times, they will internalize and believe it. Disabled and disfigured children may only see themselves as poor performers in school, or something to be pitied, or something evil… so why would they know they can strive for the world? Children’s academic achievements, their social and emotional development, their very lives can be altered by unkind narratives. And this affects all children, especially when anyone can become disabled at any time. More positive representation could alleviate the fear of the unknown that is terrifying to children and their parents who are going through unimaginable upheavals.
If there was an increase in diverse, accurate, and positive representations available across children’s media, as they construct the foundation of their personalities, so many more children could reach for beyond the stars; disabled and nondisabled, disfigured and visually typical alike. Because right now we are letting the kids down when they deserve the galaxy.
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