Three years ago, I asked readers: ‘Where are all the people with disabilities?‘ in television and pop culture. It’s something I’ve been exploring, poking at, pondering, and writing about ever since, because it’s a question that still hasn’t been satisfactorily answered. We may make up 20% of the population, but we are very rarely seen on screen or on the page, and when we are, it’s usually for a fleeting moment, not as a lead or central character. Sometimes we’re even retconned out of existence, after having our brief shining moment in the sun, so we can be shelved and replaced with newer, fresher, nondisabled versions of ourselves.
Over several years of watching, and commenting on, Glee, it’s inescapable that the aspects of the show that are handled most well are those which the creators know best. Kurt is one of the more complex, developed, and interesting characters on the show, and it’s no mistake that the actor, and writer, are gay. They can bring their experiences to that role to enrich it and make it more interesting, while the other characters feel more one-dimensional. Even when the actors share the experiences they’re depicting, they’re working within the limits of the scripting, which doesn’t allow them much room to flower.
Highlighting the importance not just of diversity in casting, but also in the writing room. The fact that it’s still acceptable to show actors in cripface is irritating and appalling, but it’s also frustrating that so few people with disabilities are writing, producing, and having creative input. In a situation like this, it’s both hard to depict disability well, and hard to get more depictions of disability, because creators write what they know, and when no one knows, representations get left out.
Pop culture that does include disabled characters often shows a stunning lack of interest in research and development; people seem to think they understand the disabled experience based on what they think about it, and thus that they can use this in a depiction and it will be sufficient. They also seem to believe that there’s no possible way they could go wrong, judging from the way that creators steadfastly ignore criticisms from members of the public who have thoughts they’d like to share, like members of the groups being depicted who think they are not being shown well. Who, in the case of Glee, may in fact argue that the show’s depictions are actively harming their cause, despite what the creators claim.
People with disabilities are always going to be thin on the ground in pop culture if we’re not represented among the creative talent tasked with making the pop culture. And there are significant barriers to getting people with disabilities into the writing room, the producer’s chair, the publisher’s catalog. To enter all of these arenas you need connections, which are often hard to obtain for people with disabilities, and it helps to have access to higher education in some cases, to the backdoor ways of entering the field. People with disabilities tend to be shunted out at the very start, forced to make their own art, and it’s hard to jump the gap to pop culture.
There are fantastic disabled actors, comedians, writers, producers, directors out there. They do produce works of great art, some of which are well-known…but primarily in the disability community. Many of them have trouble breaking into pop culture or mainstream, major creative works because doors are firmly and consistently closed to them. The doors are closed when people show up for auditions and aren’t considered seriously, not even for a minute. The doors are closed when a disabled writer can’t break onto a writing team because it’s an insider’s club and crips aren’t welcome there. The doors are closed when a disabled director is informed it would be too hard to get sponsorship for a ‘specialty project’ because that’s what work made by people with disabilities is, even if it’s an action movie that could be a huge hit at the box office. The doors are closed when a novel with a disabled character is an ‘issue book’ that wouldn’t be of general interest.
As we are excluded from the places where pop culture is made, our representations are few and far between. And our exclusion makes it even harder for us to argue against poor representations of ourselves. We aren’t even trusted as authorities on our own experiences, because few creators seem to think it’s necessary to conduct research with actual disabled people to improve the quality of their depictions. I read an interview with a nondisabled actor playing an autistic character recently in which he informed readers that he’d read a lot of books about autism and talked to some social workers, so he felt well-prepared for the role. Absent, of course, was any direct interaction with autistic people who might shed light on their own experiences.
‘Where are all the people with disabilities?’ applies not just to works of pop culture, but also to the people who are creating them. As long as we are kept out of creative roles, it’s going to be very difficult to shift pop cultural depictions of disability, and the social attitudes that come along with them. The idea that no one seems to think we belong in such roles, and that when we do, it’s ‘special,’ is very difficult to push against. We are defined as our lived experience, rather than being acknowledged as creators in our own right with more experiences to bring to the table to enrich the story, and as long as this persists, disabled creators will be kept firmly away from the places of power.