Not disabled enough: Invisible disability on TV

May 30, 2017

It’s important to have disabled characters on TV to reflect the diversity of society and to provide well-rounded characters that are not just solely their disability. But what if they aren’t disabled enough?

Mainstream TV includes a lot of people with “obvious” impairments that are “visible”. These are often just reinforcing a nondisabled view of what disability should be:

  • All people that are Blind must have a guide dog, white cane or wear dark glasses.
  • All people that are Deaf either use sign language or have visible hearing aids.
  • All people with physical impairments use wheelchairs or have crutches/callipers/artificial limbs that are displayed.
  • The only cognitive/intellectual impairment that can be shown is Down syndrome and they must always be smiling and happy.

Research has shown that most people with disability (as much as 90%) have what is defined as “invisible disabilities”. Examples of these types of disabilities are:

  • Hearing loss (most people don’t use hearing aids)
  • Vision loss (which could include colour blindness and conditions such as night vision loss)
  • Cognitive and intellectual impairments
  • Autism spectrum/ADHD
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Temporary impairment (which could be episodic or for a period of time)

What is the issue?

The problem for media portrayal is that you can’t immediately label somebody as “disabled” and either show that you are being inclusive (especially when you are trying to meet disability quotas) or using that disability as part of a plot. Invisible disabilities break the stereotypes by suggesting that if you can’t see impairment, then it isn’t really there. If the person with disability looks too much like them, then how can the viewer be sympathetic, supportive or inspired?

Not disabled enough

Current affairs programs and news programs love to expose “disability cheats” that are fraudulently claiming the disability support pension because they are not disabled enough (in the eye of the non-disabled viewer). Another classic example is staking out disabled parking spaces and “catching” people who don’t look disabled (but alternatively could be carers parking the car that they used to drop off the person with a disability at the entrance to the shopping centre).

A variation is to measure up somebody with disability against an atypical “standard”. As blind blogger Elsa Henry says she is accused of “not being blind enough” because she does not measure up to the ultimate stereotyped blind person, Helen Keller, who was both totally blind and deaf (only about 18% of people with vision loss have no sight at all).

Examples of programs featuring invisible disability

There are a few programs that include characters with an invisible (at first) disability. They tend to focus on intellectual or cognitive disabilities. Popular, long-standing children’s show Sesame Street has a character Julia that has autism. Julia was created after years of consultation with parents of children with autism and people with autism to ensure that her character was realistic. The puppeteer that plays Julia has an autistic son.

A new comedy on Netflix titled Atypical is an autism family comedy (although the character with autism is played by a non-disabled actor).

What is the solution?

It creates a dilemma for the portrayal of people with disability as invisible disabilities may not appear in statistical reviews and research, such as Screen Australia research that showed that only 4% of drama characters had a visible disability and so may not be seen to be helping increase inclusion.

There are two clear answers to this:

  1. Ensure that all disabilities, including invisible disabilities, are regularly included in drama, news, current affairs, reality TV and children’s TV so that it becomes the non-issue that it should be.
  2. Allow people with all disabilities to tell their stories showing the range of disability and how it doesn’t solely define somebody. This is the thinking and approach behind the Attitude Foundation’s move to create a television series.

Alex Varley, CEO

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