The Impact of the Popular Media on Public Perception of People with Disabilities
More than ever before, people with disabilities are valued and included members of society. This is due, in part, to portrayals of people with disabilities, including those with vision loss, in the popular media. We sometimes see groups not often represented on television presented in roles as police officers, judges, lawyers, and teachers, that hold a level of professional respect in our society. In some manner, reality television has broken all of the molds completely, showcasing real people who accomplish unexpected tasks and are successful in their chosen professions. When done well, television can desensitize and educate the public, and it seems that these days more shows accurately portray people with disabilities.
Positive Portrayals of People with Disabilities
Through the decades, on television and in movies, we have seen different portrayals of people with disabilities in roles that do not focus solely on their disabilities. In the best cases, these portrayals place underrepresented populations in the foreground, and serve to develop a level of comfort and promote some understanding in viewers that may not have previously existed.
In the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life, Geri Jewell, an actress with cerebral palsy, was one of the first people with a disability to have a regular role on a primetime television show. Jewell was witty and intelligent both in character and in person, and went on to become a very successful standup comedian.
The early 90s show Life Goes On featured Corky Thatcher, a major character with Down syndrome, played by actor Chris Burke, who has the same chromosomal condition. The show followed Corky in an inclusive setting through his public school education where he faced typical high school issues. This series demonstrated the Thatcher family's interactions as they faced all kinds of situations related to life and disability. Since the show included such a wide variety of daily life issues, it provided a positive demonstration to the public of what it means to live life to the fullest with a disability.
Marlee Matlin, a dynamic actress with a hearing impairment, has been seen on many shows, including The West Wing, Dancing with the Stars, and Celebrity Apprentice. In addition to her numerous television appearances, she has also had an impressive film career, winning the 1986 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, the youngest actress to win that honor at the time. Over the course of her career she has portrayed a full range of unique characters, none defined solely by their disability.
On the reality television circuit, Little People, Big World follows the Rolloff family, several of whom are people with dwarfism. The series has explored a variety of domestic situations over the years, and has demonstrated the frustrations that people with dwarfism face in everyday life along with how the family overcomes obstacles. Another TLC reality television show, Little Couple, also follows a successful Texas couple who are both people with dwarfism. Jen is a Neonatal Intensive Care Specialist, and Ben is a business owner and entrepreneur. In this series, viewers watch the newlywed couple begin their new family while building a house and continuing with their careers.
In every episode, the ABC reality series Expedition Impossible has multiple three-person teams compete in a series of challenges involving outdoor activities, such as climbing, rappelling and white water kayaking, along with puzzles, problem solving, and more. The teams feature people who have pursued intense physical training for professional (such as firefighters and professional athletes) or personal reasons. One team included Erik Weihenmayer, a professional mountain climber, world adventurer, author, and teacher. Although he is blind, Mr. Weihenmayer has climbed the seven peaks, a great accomplishment that only a select number of people can claim, and has also demonstrated his unique talents in hiking, and solo kayaking through white water rapids. Many viewers were blown away by his adventures throughout the show, and his team finished second overall. His and his teammates' participation and success in these intensive physical activities created a significant impression on the public as to what a person with vision loss can accomplish.
Fox show MasterChef puts home cooks from around the country in competition with each other for the title of MasterChef, a prize of $250,000, and a cookbook publishing deal. This past season featured Christine Ha, a graduate student at the University of Houston in Texas and a food and recipe blogger who is also almost completely blind. Throughout the show, prompted by questions from the judges, Ha provided insight into how she accomplishes tasks in the kitchen without the use of her vision.
Such positive, informative examples in the popular media have led employers to recalibrate their conceptions of what people with any kind of disability can accomplish, and have led to many career opportunities for those with visual impairments or other disabilities.
Just as positive portrayals of individuals with disabilities can help overcome stereotypical and misguided public perception, there are also many depictions in the media that generate and perpetuate limiting assumptions about what people with disabilities can accomplish, particularly concerning vision loss.
The film Scent of a Woman is about a depressed man who lost his vision during military service, and plans to kill himself during a trip to New York City. In the film, he is able to drive a sports car at very fast speeds through New York City without any mistakes or practice and dances a tango perfectly without any missteps after merely asking the dimensions of the dance floor. That's quite the trick.
Similarly, the film At First Sight follows Julian, a massage therapist who has lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and cataracts. In the film, he demonstrates his amazing ability to listen to rain on a roof and, suddenly, be able to describe the structure. Julian's portrayal also encourages the "brailling someone's face" myth in which he touches another character's face in order to know what he or she looks like.
These unrealistic characterizations generate false ideas in the public about those who are blind and visually impaired. These types of unrealistic portrayals can spur the public to behave inappropriately around people with visual impairments, and dismiss them from certain opportunities.
I'm looking forward to seeing Trouble with the Curve, which features Clint Eastwood's portrayal of a baseball scout dealing with vision loss due to macular degeneration. Eastwood's character has to adapt to vision loss and learn new skills as an older worker, a very real situation for many employees today.
There are many positive portrayals in the media that help break stereotypes about, and increase opportunities for, people who have disabilities. Such positive portrayals can open doors for people in the world of employment, while negative or inaccurate portrayals serve to reinforce common misconceptions held by the public. Television shows, films, and other forms of media that bring authentic role models truthfully to the foreground should be commended and encouraged to continue this positive work.
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