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The vital importance of accurate representation of disability in TV and film

Chelsea uses examples of films and TV shows that showcases better representation of disabled people as people, rather than a shorthand to make a character evil or to make the audience cry.

iStock: cyano66

Representation of disabled people in the media is still extremely lacking. We are either non-existent, represented poorly or misrepresented. Often, disability is used as shorthand to make a character more menacing or evil, for example, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Isaac in Sex Education or Davros in Doctor Who. That being said, I’ve seen quite a few films and shows that do a good job at portraying people living with disabilities without letting their conditions define them. As a disabled person, I love to see characters living with chronic illness that experience ups as well as downs. This helps us show we aren’t just a tragic sob story to make you cry, we aren’t always in hospital and can, in fact, live a somewhat normal life. Whilst I still haven’t seen too many, there are some movies and shows I feel do a good job at representing disabled people as people, where our disabilities are only a part of the wider picture.

One that does portray disability better is Netflix Original Alexa and Katie. It follows teenage girls Alexa and Katie through their friendship and starting a new year at school just after Alexa was diagnosed with cancer. Although it would be nice to every so often see a terminal illness represented that is less well-known than cancer, this show has a good balance in portraying the ups and downs of someone going through chronic illness. I, for one, resonated with Alexa a lot. I, too, started a new school year with a chronic illness diagnosis (lupus), and seeing her struggle to maintain her health and things she liked doing (especially at the start) was incredibly relatable.

Despite fighting cancer, Alexa was able to create bonds with her family, who were incredibly supportive throughout her diagnostic journey. Her relationship with Katie was pivotal because she had a caring friend by her side through school. She was even able to develop relationships with love interests, who loved her for who she was as a person and were empathetic to her situation.

Alexa and Katie shows how people living with chronic illness can develop loving bonds just like everyone else, and that it is just as invaluable to them, if not more, to have a support network around them.

Although they showed some hospital appointments, they also showed her passion for basketball, how smart she was and caring to the people around her.

Movie, Brain on Fire, adapted from the book is an incredible film that shows Susannah through her diagnosis journey. It portrayed her suddenly becoming ill, experiencing common flu-like symptoms, which gradually moved to hearing things that have not been said and hypersensitivity to loud noises. Through this, she was medically gaslighted, told she was just partying too hard, working too much, blaming it on alcohol and lack of sleep. This is something most, if not all people living with rare disease face at least once in their lives and so was an incredibly important step to show in the movie.

Brain on Fire is an excellent portrayal of what it’s like to go through a diagnosis because of how realistic it is. It didn’t only show the medical gaslighting, but other common things we (or our parents) must do. For example, Susannah’s parents had to demand more tests because the doctors denied further testing even though there were clear and alerting symptoms. Doctors blamed it on mental health, suggesting she may have schizophrenia. It was not until an expert came on the case that she finally got a diagnosis of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a group of rare neurological conditions causing inflammation of the brain (hence the movie title, Brain on Fire).

Wonder is probably one of my favourite movies that represents a disabled character. Although he does not live with an invisible illness, Auggie has a rare facial deformity referred to as mandibulofacial dystosis and goes to school for the first time after being homeschooled his whole life due to many health complications, including surgeries. The movie (adapted from the novel by the same name) showcases him struggling through normal hardships at school, such as bullying, which was heightened due to his visible disability. However, it also highlights how he dealt with it. He doesn’t end up bullying back, he doesn’t end up quitting school, he doesn’t become depressed. We instead see him blossom throughout the year: he makes friends, wins the science fair with his project and genuinely enjoys school—he is incredibly smart and has a love for science.

Wonder helps show that despite the hardships those with disabilities can go through, we can also overcome challenges and barriers and begin to find the happiness we deserve.

The Fundamentals of Caring is another favourite movie of mine. Unusually, when it comes to having a disabled person of interest, it is a comedy. Again, the main character has a visible disability, with Trevor (the main character) being a wheelchair user. But the show does not make this physical disability the focus of his character but instead, does an incredible job of illustrating him as a person. Trevor is extremely funny, and in the movie, he gets to experience things he never thought he would be able to due to his disability. His overprotective mother didn’t realise it at the time but allowing him to explore and take risks became very valuable to him as he went on an adventure with his new carer and gives him a new reason to live. Although he is disabled, he is able to live a life of adventure, of risks, and of spontaneity (if places and situations allow). Of course, disabled people may have to plan a little bit more, be more prepared in case something happened or ensure we have everything we could possibly need for when things don’t go to plan. But it is possible, within reason, and The Fundamentals of Caring showcases that.

Accurate and true representation is extremely important. There are currently over 6,000 rare diseases and 75% of these affect children. Constantly seeing media where you aren’t represented can make you feel more like an outcast. It is a reminder we are seen as ‘different’, which can be extremely isolating. Seeing somebody in the media going through something like you can give you a character to relate to. You feel that not only do you understand the character, but that the character understands you. They don’t even need to have the same condition—it can just be any condition. It might even be helpful to see how they deal with it and see there is more than one way to live life with chronic illness.

Seeing a main character living with an invisible illness, going through similar traumas and hardships can be a great relief. It demonstrates you are not the only person struggling or feeling like this—it makes a viewer with a disability feel less alone.

Whilst some people love ‘classic’ movies such as The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You or even Five Feet Apart, I must stress the importance of having better representation of disabled people in the media than can be found in these. Me Before You was heavily criticised for its portrayal of a disabled person, since it reinforces the idea that it is terrible to be disabled, so horrible that we are better off dead. Viewers responded with the movement #MeBeforeAbleism, with others within the community commenting that we shouldn’t be used only to be killed off to make the audience cry. Likewise, both Five Feet Apart and The Fault in Our Stars are both tragic stories, that feature death. Although movies like these do portray crucial elements, such as death and the negative aspects of our disabilities, there needs to be better representation to include moments when the main character is going through good or ‘normal’ things in their life, showing that disability is part of who we are, not who we are.

Of course, there will be several pivotal moments where we will be in hospital, going through life-changing surgeries, drug trials and tests. But it is also critical to showcase that we too can live a life. Our life will just look different (we see healthcare professionals a lot more often, for a start!) but representation of this should be balanced out with the good. We should also get to see the outings we have with our friends, movie dates with a partner, passions, hobbies, accomplishments, which are opportunities that many people with disabilities do enjoy.

Disability representation in the media should show those things to show us as people and not just people defined by our disability, to normalise us being in media and to normalise us being in society.

Able-bodied people may not always be able to relate to what we go through, but seeing us portrayed in a brighter light in the media will help them better empathise with us, aid their understanding of what our lives are truly like and see how they could support us. We deserve to be better represented.



LinkedIn @chelsea-wongg


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