More than 15 percent of the world population is living with some form of disability, according to the World Bank. And yet, the legitimate inclusion of people with disabilities in media is sparse at best. Now that skilled trades and other highly involved roles are being more valued by society, we’re in danger of pushing those with disabilities out into the fringes even further. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Media has a very perceptible role in shaping societal awareness and sensitivity. By working towards better inclusion of people with disabilities in entertainment media, we can significantly reduce the divide between those with disabilities and those without, if not eliminate it once and for all.
Former Grey’s Anatomy Co-Producer Reveals Secret to Accurate Disability Representation
To see just how lacking disability representation is in entertainment TV, you just have to look at how much of a buzz is created whenever an instance of it actually appears. People still point to “American Horror Story” as a prime example of how to do disability representation right. While it’s great to have the standard set so high, it doesn’t change the fact that almost no one has tried to surpass it, or even meet it.
The key to bridging the gap? According to Elisabeth Finch, writer and co-executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” from 2015 to 2021, it’s working closely with a person living with a disability. Finch, who is the lone surviving member of a cancer trial of 13, brought some much-needed intimate insight onto the writing table. Her struggle inspired the creation of a character on the show, but not only that, her presence among the writers gave them a much more accurate perspective on the lives of those living with a disability. The writers, and likely most of the audience, previously thought that the story of a cancer patient revolved around winning and losing the battle against it. What they overlooked was the fact that they lived much more fleshed-out lives than that, and cancer, although a looming threat, was only part of it. Once they were made cognizant of this, what resulted was a much more realistic and sincere portrayal of disability in entertainment than they could have produced by simply guessing.
Why Disability Representation is Needed Now More Than Ever
Nowadays, there are many sentiments about diversity and inclusion floating around. And more often than not, these sentiments are at odds. In this kind of landscape, putting forward healthy representation that the vast majority of people will find favorable is crucial. This helps cement the presence of persons with disabilities in the public consciousness, reminding us all that they are by and large just like the rest of us. In so doing, we lessen the divide between those with disabilities and those without.
Although no representation is more valid than the other, one can argue that disability representation carries with it a very important function: to foster a better understanding of the lives of those with disabilities. In understanding them better, we form a better idea of how to make society a better place for them. Prominent educational institutions, like Washington State U, believe that it can be instrumental in breaking down stereotypes. Alternatively, encouraging more natural and realistic disability representation in media helps educate the public on the nature of disabilities in a more personal way. Things like different cerebral palsy types and other esoteric and nuanced knowledge could come to the fore. As more people become familiar with this information, individuals with disabilities will feel much less marginalized in society.
Better Representation is Only a Matter of Time
With so much of the world’s population living with some sort of disability, not representing them is simply money lost for the entertainment industry. That being said, ensuring that it’s done properly and tastefully is also crucial. If they could figure out the best practices for doing so, they can only benefit from representing people with disabilities. Productions who do it well will become celebrated in the eyes of all audiences, from critics to casual viewers. This will thus bump up their patronage and encourage more and better representation.
If things go well for disability representation, it could start a positive feedback loop of normalizing characters with disabilities in popular media. If this is achieved, we will have made a great leap towards closing the gap between people with disabilities and society at large.