By Emma Burrows
I was born with moderate Cerebral Palsy (CP), which is a disability that affects motor ability, and in my case, it makes me walk a little differently. Growing up in a world of inclusivity, where society makes sure everyone’s voice is heard, I’ve noticed a lack of disabled people being included in the same ways that others are. Seeing someone just like you on a billboard, or winning an award, creates a sense of possibility for people with disabilities, people like me.
Watching television as a child impacted me more than I realized. I would always see characters that looked like a copy of my brothers and sisters but where was I? Sure I tried to connect to characters as much as possible, but in reality my everyday obstacles run deeper than kid drama, friend groups, and fighting with your sister because she wore your favorite shirt without asking. There were very few times growing up that I saw a character that went through what I went through. No show that I watched had a character that cried because they didn’t feel “normal”.
No character had to face kindergarten with a walker, leg cast on both legs, and recover from 3 surgeries within one year. I thought as a little kid that I had to be cursed because why was I the only one that went through this? I’ve always felt left out because I only saw what was considered “normal.” No one other than my mom told me that I WAS normal.
Early depictions of the disabled community in television used “disabled” characters in an attempt to create a heartwarming relationship between able bodied people. But, actors that play handicapped characters don’t tend to be from the disabled community themselves. They are able bodied people portraying the disabled. This creates an inaccurate and stereotypical view that is portrayed poorly.
Take the character Artie Abrams from the drama series Glee as an example. Artie is a wheelchair-using teenager who expresses the hardships of not fitting in by not having mobility in his legs.
Though, an episode where he has a dream sequence he gets out of his wheelchair and has a dance battle with his newfound ability to walk. Artie’s character addresses some of the problems and desires of a person with a disability (in a dramatic over the top way).
However, it does not make up for the misleading and offending nature of his actions as an able-bodied actor portraying someone in a wheelchair. This narrative asserts that he should dream to be able-bodied. The story argues that disability is something that people should aim to escape. In reality, disabled people lead rich, enjoyable lives.
Personally, there has only been a handful of times that I have felt rightfully represented through characters. The recent Netflix series Special starred Ryan O’Connell, a man with Cerebral Palsy navigating life as a 20 something year old with a disability. O’Connell hits the target on many undervalued aspects of living with a disability.
He validates the emotional and physical struggles of being considered special in a world that wants everyone to be equal. O’connell does so by using his experiences as a person actually born with CP. While watching this show, I found myself connecting to the struggles of having Cerebral Palsy from the perspective of someone other than myself, which was a foreign concept to me.
I have struggled with different aspects of life that not even my family can comfort me on. Yet watching a show that addresses the issues that I deal with as a person with CP has helped me realize that I’m not alone.
I’ve faced life feeling like my disability is something that I should be ashamed of. Something that I should avoid talking about. One show, a show that I felt seen by, helped me deal with the truth that I did not want to face.
The truth is, having a disability has made me who I am, I don’t know who I would be without it and I never will. Little 5 year old me despised the small things that made me different. I was always jealous of the fact that I didn’t walk like my favorite character on TV. Before Special no one that I knew in the media and in life ever dealt with the sadness of missing out on important friendships, and school trips all because of a disability that they couldn’t control.
One show, a show that I felt seen by, helped me deal with the truth that I did not want to face. The truth is, having a disability has made me who I am, I don’t know who I would be without it and I never will. Little 5 year old me despised the small things that made me different. I was always jealous of the fact that I didn’t walk like my favorite character on TV.
Before Special no one that I knew in the media and in life ever dealt with the sadness of missing out on important friendships, and school trips all because of a disability that they couldn’t control.
Obviously there are people like me out there, but growing up I never saw anyone like me. The underrepresentation or misinterpretation of disabled people has been a problem throughout the growth of media as well as movies and tv shows. A problem that is addressed on a very little scale. According to the un.org, 15% of the world struggles with some form of disability, though only 3.1% of characters on screen are disabled.
Watching Special as a disabled person brought to light the importance of accurate representation to a community.
Of course, since I am a part of that 15% I have a different view on the issue. But maybe, just maybe, this is what we need to bring attention to the problem.