The only place to see disabled people on TV: Reality shows

Evaluating the representation of disabled people in media is frustrating, primarily because there are so few of us in books, films, television, and other arts that it’s nearly impossible to make concrete comments — we’re holding single characters up against a standard that they can’t hope to meet. (Imagine, for example, if only two percent of television characters were cis women — they’d have to somehow magically account for the diversity of the experiences, philosophies, beliefs, and attitudes of cis women, and inevitably cis women critics would be angry about their representation.) When you have a tiny sample to draw upon, it’s well-nigh impossible to make meaningful statements about that sample — as true in science, so true in media criticism.

1.4% of the characters on scripted shows are disabled. Most are in cripface roles, played by nondisabled actors who claim to have researched such roles carefully, though their depictions suggest otherwise. The vast majority are exaggerated caricatures, cardboard cutouts provided as very special lessons for viewers — and with diversity becoming trendy (which is a good thing! I want people to think about diversity!), many shows are throwing in disabled characters just so they can say they have them. Networks are apparently missing the fact that diversity isn’t just about outward appearance, but the creation of nuanced, complicated, and interesting characters.

So disabled people who want to see themselves on television have few options when it comes to recurring characters on scripted shows — and let’s not even get into the characters who show up as cringeworthy one-offs. Instead, they have to turn to another venue: Reality shows. I’m actually not an immense fan of the genre, for a variety of reasons, but I have to credit the creators of reality shows for putting their diversity where their mouth is and including a range of disabled personalities. In some cases, shows actually revolve around disability, as in the case of BBC’s Undateables.

This is huge. When you can’t see yourself in media and are forced to retreat to a narrow spectrum of programming, it’s humiliating and frustrating — especially if you happen to be less than thrilled with that spectrum. It’s also telling that nondisabled viewers can neatly avoid depictions of disability by not watching reality shows. In effect, they can choose whether they want to see disability in the world, and while it may not be a conscious choice — ‘I’m not going to watch reality TV because it has gross cripples on it’ — it’s still a choice.

Notably, reality shows depict, well, real disabled people. They show us doing things and interacting with society on our own terms. While such programming is manipulated and partially scripted and controlled off camera, there is a sense of spontaneity, and good shows have to feel natural. Sundance’s Push Girls works not because it’s a tragic lesson about disability, but because it shows fiery women living their lives — and not necessarily agreeing on disability politics. The fact that disability politics are showing up on television at all is revolutionary. Switches at Birth may explore Deaf politics, which can by extension for some Deaf people include disability politics, but the issues the Deaf community confronts can’t be appropriated and swapped with disability politics.

Reality TV has blind women competing on cooking shows, amputees dancing, and more. It shows disabled people in a range of occupations and it doesn’t generally provide them with special treatment beyond basic accommodations — the goal isn’t to single out the disabled person but to treat her fairly and evenhandedly. Christine Há on Masterchef may have had an aide, but she did that cooking on her own, without help and prompting, and she won that trophy fairly. Her performance on the show might have been singled out a bit by the producers in part as a ‘special story,’ but she rose above that — as Gordon Ramsay likes to remind his competitors, he doesn’t really care who they are, he cares about what they do and whether they can prove themselves.

Thus, we’re in a situation where the greatest disability diversity and range of depictions occurs in a genre of television that many people sneer at. Media critics who engage on a deep level with scripted television refuse to watch reality shows because they think they’re beneath them, and, oddly enough, reality viewers are getting a more nuanced and complicated depiction of disability than the critics who mock them. They likely know more about disability politics and the daily life of living with disability, and such shows can break down barriers like disablism to force viewers to rethink the way they conceptualise and talk about disability.

Mocking reality shows and their fans is easy for many who consider themselves highbrow arbiters of culture, but it’s more complicated than that. They provide a more diverse and accurate slice of life than scripted shows, who would do well to follow their lead when it comes to representation, both in the sense of casting decisions and depictions. Scripted shows might not like the idea of being told to look to their lesser counterparts for a lesson in how to do television right, but it’s clear that they can’t handle the responsibility of depicting disabled characters on their own.

Someday I’d like to see a blind woman casually cooking on a scripted show. Until that day comes, though, I’m going to have to settle for watching Masterchef. 

Image: Television, Daniel Go, Flickr