Disability in the Media: Examining Stigma and Identity

Disability in the Media: Examining Stigma and Identity, by Tracy Worrell, professor of communication. Published by Lexington Books.

When a character with a disability is portrayed on a television show or movie, the portrayal is often not an accurate reflection of that disability.

“A lot of television criminal shows have characters with a mental illness. They are drastically overrepresented as criminals,” Worrell said.

That’s just one problem Worrell found with how disability is portrayed in the media after spending more than three years researching the topic, including interviews and reviewing surveys taken by people with disabilities.

Worrell’s book also explains how these portrayals impact people with disabilities regarding their own identity, and how it affects their relationships with others.

Individuals who are disabled in real life often don’t identify with a disabled character and that can result in a feeling of isolation.

“For many individuals with a disability, very few characters they see on shows are like them. It’s hard to identify with that character and individuals may feel left out because there’s no one like them to identify with in mainstreamed media. And when there are characters they might identify with, they feel there is something wrong with them if they feel they can’t do what the characters do.”

The portrayals impact more than those with disabilities. It also can affect caregivers and the others who might have limited exposure to individuals with a disability.

“For the general public who have limited exposure to individuals with disabilities in real life, they may believe that the portrayal is accurate. Unfortunately, they don’t know that might not be the case,” Worrell said. “It can affect how they perceive a disability, how they might treat an individual or how they might vote at the polls. The portrayals may build a social construction for people who don’t have direct contact with persons with disabilities.”

One practice that has been an on-going issue for decades is what Worrell calls “disability drag,” having an actor without a disability play a character who has a disability. Not only does that take a potential employment opportunity away from a disabled actor, often the character does something the character would not be able to do. One scene from the show Glee featured an able-bodied actor whose character used a wheelchair. In dream sequences, however, the character could walk and dance.

Worrell hopes media producers will hire actors and actresses with the disabilities to portray characters with disabilities.

“And they should have very strong technical advisors for the program that focus on that disability,” she said. “In most cases, shows portraying characters with disabilities have no disabled writers, producers or technical advisors with those disabilities”

And she said the general public as well as policy makers, health professionals and care givers can respond to negative portrayals when they see them.

“In the end, anybody watching as an audience member should remember the media is not always accurate in its reflection of society,” Worrell said. “And we can challenge that. For example, if something is portrayed inaccurately or potentially harmful, we can Tweet about it. As an intelligent media consumer, we’re allowed to push back and question and challenge.”