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"Run Forest, Run!": Disability stereotypes in the media

Date Posted: Wednesday, 20 July 2016 12:33
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

The media has a long track record of using stereotypes to portray people with disabilities. These stereotypes can be negative or positive – but either way, they’re rarely true to life.

Tiny Tim main image

Although these days we’re seeing more realistic portrayals of people with a disability in the media, common stereotypes still tend to stick around much more than they should. 

Our challenge to the media: let’s move away from these stereotypes and instead represent people with disabilities as three-dimensional people, not caricatures. 

Let’s also see more roles, even leading roles, played by someone with a disability. The sad fact is, only 1% of actors on TV (and we would assume other media too) have a disability (GLAAD). But, there’s no reason that people with disabilities shouldn’t be represented in all forms of media, from acting to modelling. 

So what are some of the more common stereotypes that get thrown around? Here are a few you may recognise…

Stereotype #1: The villain

Throughout history, books and films have drawn strong links between disabilities and evil or depravity. There are countless examples of “baddies” with disabilities: from Captain Hook, to Shakespeare’s Richard III, to most of James Bond’s arch-enemies (watch the video above). 

It’s also not uncommon for the villain to have a mental illness (as well as a particular tendency towards violent crime) – from the escapee of the town ‘institution’, to the Joker in The Dark Knight who is said to have schizophrenia. Read our myths about schizophrenia article which debunks the link between schizophrenia and violence.

Possibly this stereotype has been driven by a historical unfamiliarity about people with disabilities, but whatever the reason, it’s not a healthy or helpful trend.

Stereotype #2: The superhero

On the flipside, there’s the superhero: an inspirational character who is actually seen to be extraordinary or heroic just because of their disability. 

News stories and online memes are big culprits of this stereotype, where a person with a disability is glorified. Many people with disabilities are just as capable as everyone else, and don’t need gushing praise for simply living their lives.

Then there’s also the ‘disability superpower’, where fate has removed one ability, but in turn enhanced another. The hero in Daredevil, for instance, is blinded by a radioactive substance, and while he can no longer see, his other senses are heightened giving him ‘radar sense’. 

While these might seem more positive stereotypes than some others, they’re still not accurate – and can be more than a little patronising. 

Stereotype #3: The victim

Another common scenario is where a person is seen as pitiful or helpless, just because they have a disability. 

There are too many examples of this stereotype to list, but a few include Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, John Merrick in the Elephant Man, Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and even news reports which describe people as ‘victims’ or ‘sufferers’. 

In all these cases, a character’s disability (often combined with a particularly endearing personality) is used to gain sympathy from the audience – rather than genuine compassion. This is certainly an example of focusing on the disability, not the person.

Stereotype #4: The butt of the joke

This one is a particularly harmful stereotype, and one that’s disturbingly common. 

Making a mockery of people’s differences is cowardly at best, but unfortunately many films and TV shows use it as a way to get cheap laughs – from Mary’s brother Warren in “There’s Something About Mary”, to Ken’s stutter in “A Fish Called Wanda”. Even Barack Obama in the video above makes a joke about bowling in the Special Olympics!

Also modern day TV ‘documentaries’ such as Embarrassing Bodies, poke fun at or ridicule disability or medical conditions for entertainment value. 

People with disabilities have also long been ridiculed in comedy shows too – with the R-word being used much too often. On a lighter note, though, some comedians who actually have disabilities are now redressing the balance – using their performances to poke fun at themselves and raise awareness about disabilities in a humorous but respectful way (Adam Hills, Josh Blue and Alex Brooker are a few examples).

Stereotype #5: Eternally innocent

In many films, characters are depicted as being angelic or childlike, simply because they have a disability. Forrest Gump, I am Sam, and Rain Man are all great examples. 

Often the naïve and sweet character with a disability, reveals the flaws of their ‘normal’ adult peers – leading to them finding redemption. 

Like all the other stereotypes we’ve looked at, this one is harmful mainly because it’s inaccurate – and reinforces patronising perceptions that are simply not true. 

Got any questions about disability stereotypes? Write them in the comments section below. 

Take a look at our myths about disabilities series where we challenge common misconceptions about disability.


Check out our other blogs

Savant syndrome: the truth behind Rain Man 
Taboo questions about disability: part 1 
Let's end the R-word 

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

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