Representation is Everything

For far too long, people with disabilities were not seen in everyday life of the media, TV shows, movies or in the advertisements for products we purchase every day. If people with disabilities were portrayed in a TV show or movie, disabled characters were often played by people who were able-bodied as seen in Riding the Bus with My Sister, starting Rosie O’Donnell. Or, they were shown as a character who was extra special or someone who needed to be cured of their disability to live a fulfilling life. From personal observation, I would say we’ve seen a shift of representation for people with disabilities in the last two to three years, but is it enough?

Representation plays an important role of letting groups of people know that they are seen and matter in society. Children and adults alike being able to see themselves in everyday media encourages them and lets them know that they are not alone and creates a sense of belonging.

In March, Barbie announced that moving forward, all Barbie dollhouses and campers will be wheelchair accessible. This is a huge step forward in the representation of people with disabilities. This encourages the idea that accessibility should be considered in the beginning of constructing new ideas, and not as an afterthought or a problem that needs to be fixed when it is brought to one’s attention. Now, for any child who plays with a Barbie dollhouse or camper, accessibility will be at the forefront and expected to accommodate all people.

The streaming service Netflix has been a major player in the push for the representation of

people with disabilities in their movies and TV shows, with productions such as Atypical, the Fundamentals of Caring, and the Healing Powers of the Dude. Other networks such as NBC’s This is Us, ABC’s Speechless, and CBS’s the Big Bang Theory have also joined in on representing people with disabilities in their primetime slots.

In 2017, Ali Stroker made history by being the first person who uses a wheelchair to be in a Broadway production. Then, she made history in 2019 for being the first wheelchair user to be nominated and win a Tony Award. 

While we have made major progress in the representation of people with disabilities, is it enough? When will seeing another person with a disability on the television screen or a blockbuster movie become normalized? When will we see contestants with disabilities on our beloved reality TV shows, such as the Bachelor, Survivor or Big Brother? When will we see children who are able-bodied playing with dolls or figures who have disabilities? Where is the superhero with the disability that saves the world? Where are commercials that have people with disabilities in them to advertise everyday products?  Until all those questions can be answered, we have a long way to go.

About Isabella Bullock: Isabella, or Izzy for short, is an employment specialist for the Center of Independent Living. She is an iced coffee enthusiast who enjoys getting lost in a good book. Click here to learn more about Isabella.