(image from www.target.com.au)
I never really gave it much thought as a child, in all the tv shows that I watched, the movies, the ads on tv and in magazines, that there were no disabled people included in the story, the message. Looking back as an adult though, through my childhood sketch books and written stories, I always drew figures with missing hands and feet, or wrote about people who were different in someway (usually with a magical element, cause I’m magical - right!!). I think, in a way, I was making my own representation of characters, people like me. And here we are in 2019 and there is still a lack of representation, though it is improving… slightly.
Why do we need diverse, authentic, disability representation in the media though? There is often a token disabled person in shows and movies, or the narrative is tied up in one of three disability tropes, the tragic disabled person, the evil disabled person, and the inspirational disabled person. All of this is hurtful and deceitful, and presents a feeling of either being brushed aside, or being shoved into an uncomfortable spotlight that is so far from the reality of disability. My story isn’t tragic, I am not evil, and I like to think I can inspire people with what I have achieved, separate from the "inspiration" of my disability. It is these tropes that still persist though that we need to question and change, especially in the media.
If we can manage to get inclusion and diversity right in the media I firmly believe we will start to get inclusion and diversity right in education, work, and community. It’s about creating the world that we want to see, that we want to be an active part of, and so demanding change in the media starts with you. I recently came across an article about how, in Australia, there is starting to be a real push to get children with disabilities in ads for big companies such as Kmart and Target. This push comes from a ripple effect, of seeing other companies and media agencies taking up the reigns of authentic representation. What inspired me in this article was how a mother, upon seeing Target in the US do a campaign that included children with disabilities, decided to appeal to Australian Target for more diverse representation in their catalogues. Well they agreed and her son ended up being featured, amongst others. And it isn’t even just the fact that they are pursuing greater disability representation, but that it is authentic. This particular image (above), from one of the Target Australia catalogues, shows Emily Prior, a nine year old with cerebral palsy, centre stage. What stands out to me isn’t her disability, it is there, but it is simply a part of the story being told. This image implies that Emily is just like every other kid out there, just as every disabled child should feel they are the same, included, and valued.
It isn’t only in ads that we are seeing an increase in representation. In the last few years there has been a steady stream of television shows, mainly comedies and sitcoms, that are showing disability life as it is. As I said above, disability is often represented by three tropes, tragedy, being evil, or inspirational, but shows such as Speechless and Switched at Birth. There are two brilliant aspects of these shows that has to be replicated to gain full authentic representation across the board - firstly, disabled actors are cast to play disabled characters, hence bringing their lived experience to the role that an able bodied actor could never understand, and secondly, the disability is not represented as the key factor in the disabled characters life, it is simply an aspect of them, one of many layers that makes up the the identity of that character.
I could’ve only dreamt about seeing this disability representation when I was a child. I grew up "able bodied", I went to a mainstream school, I was the only person in my family with a disability, and the media I consumed was able bodied driven. But I have a disability and I want to be proud of my disability now, and in seeing more authentic representation in the media there is the implication that the disabled lived experience is valid, validated, and valued, as it should be.