Written by Rosemary Musachio
The media always has had a tremendous impact on molding public view about persons with disabilities (PWD). Until twenty years ago, the media portrayed us as helpless, heroic, or mean. It did not show us as people who held jobs, were in romantic relationships, or raised families. These portrayals are based on Dark Ages perceptions of us. PWDs were institutionalized or hidden away in the back room. If a PWD managed to overcome obstacles, such as FDR, they did not publicize that they were disabled.
For example, such films as “The Elephant Man”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, “The Glass Menagerie”, and “The Waterdance” all depict characters with disabilities who are down on themselves, who are programmed to think they are worthless in society’s eyes. Their negative self-images cast shadows over the viewing audience’s perspective towards us. Scenes of the poor helpless disabled resonate in a viewer’s mind if it is not open. These types of movies run the risk of making employers ask themselves “Why would I want to hire someone like that?”. They dissuade other persons to interact with us.
At the other extreme, movies like “Rain Man”, “My Left Foot”, and “Rear Window” show persons with disabilities as heroic, as having some kind of God-given power to solve problems that nobody else or to be renown for some great feat. While this may boost our egos, the hero concept can place pressure on us. I’ve experienced this throughout my life. I’ve been expected to be the Wonder Woman of the Intellect because I’m intelligent with disabilities, not just because I’m an intelligent person. Being looked upon as a hero also gives the false assumption that we don’t need assistance or accommodations.
Persons with disabilities also have been portrayed as ill-spirited. Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, for instance, is a banker in a wheelchair who is greedy and mean. Another example is Peter Sellers’ “Dr. Strangelove, an evil scientist who also is in a wheelchair. The stereotypical role gives the perception of being disabled makes someone mean or unfriendly. Again, this perception may seep into people’s subconscious, especially those of children. They may see mean fictional characters with disabilities, such as Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”, Quasimodo in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and Darth Vadar in “Star Wars”; and then they may be frightened to approach real persons with disabilities.
Yet, the media finally emerged from the dark ages. Movies and television shows have started
portraying us in a much more positive light in the last twenty years. For example, an actual actress who is deaf (Marlee Martlin) played an assistant district attorney who is deaf in “Reasonable Doubts”. Other examples include a policeman who is in a wheelchair in “Cagney and Lacey”, a doctor who walks with a cane in “House”, and a paralyzed professor in “Professor X”, just to name a few. The movie “Intouchables” even portrays a rich quadriplegic who ends up paragliding and getting a girlfriend.
Nowadays actors with disabilities also are earning awards for television and movie roles. At the recent Emmy Awards, Peter Linkage won the Best Supporting Actor Award for Games of Thrones. Dinklage has dwarfism, yet his disability actually helped land his role. Marlee Marlin, mentioned above, earned an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actress for “Children of A Lesser God”, where she portrays a deaf cleaning woman whose intelligence is discovered by a special education teacher.
Although no scientific studies have been conducted between public perspective of persons with disabilities and their portrayals in the movies, seeing positive images of us in the media can only foster further integration in society. Businesses are more motivated to employ us if they view us as doctors and lawyers on the movie and T.V. More beauty and sex appeal are attributed to us if more we are shown as caring, loving, and sexual on the small and big screen. If the entertainment industry wouldn’t focus on the disability but on the characters who just happens to be disabled, then society would follow suit.