Disability Representation in Film, TV, and Print Media
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Disability Representation in Film, TV, and Print Media

Michael S. Jeffress, Michael S. Jeffress

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eBook - ePub

Disability Representation in Film, TV, and Print Media

Michael S. Jeffress, Michael S. Jeffress

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About This Book

Using sources from a wide variety of print and digital media, this book discusses the need for ample and healthy portrayals of disability and neurodiversity in the media, as the primary way that most people learn about conditions.

It contains 13 newly written chapters drawing on representations of disability in popular culture from film, television, and print media in both the Global North and the Global South, including the United States, Canada, India, and Kenya. Although disability is often framed using a limited range of stereotypical tropes such as victims, supercrips, or suffering patients, this book shows how disability and neurodiversity are making their way into more mainstream media productions and publications with movies, television shows, and books featuring prominent and even lead characters with disabilities or neurodiversity.

Disability Representation in Film, TV, and Print Media will be of interest to all scholars and students of disability studies, cultural studies, film studies, gender studies, and sociology more broadly.

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1 Parasocial contact effects and a disabled actor in Speechless

Lingling Zhang and Beth Haller
The intent of the TV show Speechless was to focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, according to its creator, Scott Silveri, whose older brother has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal (Haller, 2016). This theme of inclusion created a kind of mandate for authenticity. Silveri said that in his view, it would not be an inclusive television show if he hired a nondisabled actor to play disabled (Haller, 2016). Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy (CP) and uses a wheelchair, played the JJ Dimeo character on Speechless. That inclusive theme informed the many disability topics the show tackled. However, the show focused on these topics not as a “disability show” but to tie into the experiences that a character who happens to use a wheelchair might encounter. Silveri said that the JJ character was not to function as a “prop,” but instead he wanted JJ to be a teen character who exists “outside of the disability, outside of the wheelchair” (Cornish, 2016). Toward this end, the show presented narratives that embraced a more authentic view of disability and family life. It included a disabled script consultant, Eva Sweeney, to evaluate its disability storylines. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show began dropping in season 3 and ABC cancelled Speechless in May 2019 (Kimball, 2019). The ratings dropped from more than 4 million viewers in season 2 (2017–2018) to 2.3 million viewers in season 3 (2018–2019) (TVSeriesFinale.com, 2019).
With the authentic casting in Speechless of a disabled actor, this research sought to explore audience attitude change after watching storylines related to an authentic disabled character. Using the parasocial contact hypothesis that illustrated how viewers’ attitudes changed about gay men after watching Six Feet Under, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Will and Grace (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005, 2006), a survey was designed to investigate the attitudes of Speechless viewers toward a TV character with a disability. Would there be any interaction effects on the Speechless audience about their possibly changing attitudes toward people with disabilities and social interactions with people with disabilities?

1.1 Disabled people in entertainment media

Disabled actors have been regularly appearing on US entertainment television since the 1970s but mostly as guest stars (Haller, 2020). Balter said in 1999 that only 1% of TV characters had disabilities and it has not improved much. The annual GLAAD study of LGBTQ or disabled characters on TV highlights the very low number of disabled characters on TV as well. In the 2019 TV season, 3.1% of series regular broadcast characters had a disability (GLAAD, 2019), whereas US Census data consistently reports that disabled people are about 20% of the US population (U.S. Census, 2012). However, one of the most important aspects of these few disabled characters on TV is that most are not played by disabled people (Woodburn & Kopić, 2016). Haller (2020) argues, along with disability activists (Jordan-Harris, 2014), that the exclusion of these authentic disabled performers is a social justice issue, and when a nondisabled actor performs disability, it is a form of esthetic disqualification, as disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers theorized (2010).
Disabled performers transitioned into mass media during the early days of cinema when disabled circus performers starred in Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks. However, both film and television have been slow to embrace actors with disabilities in starring roles. Deaf actor Linda Bove was a cast member on Sesame Street from 1977 to 2000, which is the longest recurring role in TV history for a deaf or disabled person (IMDB.com, n.d.). In 1980, Geri Jewell, who has CP, became the first person with a visible disability to have a reoccurring role on a prime-time TV series (CerebralPalsy.org, n.d.). An actor with Down syndrome, Chris Burke, starred in Life Goes On, a prime-time TV family drama from 1989 to 1993. In a similar fashion to Speechless, Life Goes On went beyond just hiring an actor with Down syndrome and tried to have realistic storylines. The show's producers also screened the pilot for high school students with Down syndrome who were being mainstreamed into public schools to get their feedback, the Los Angeles Down Syndrome Parents Group provided production assistance, and the National Down Syndrome Society supported the show (Horowitz, 1989).
The deaf community received in-depth TV representation when the ABC Family show Switched at Birth began in 2011. It was the first US TV show to include multiple main characters who are deaf, played by unknown deaf actors as well as famous ones like Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin (Lacob, 2012). Other disabled actors of note since the mid-2000s are several actors with Down syndrome: Luke Zimmerman on Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008–2013), Lauren Potter on Glee (2009–2015), and Jamie Brewer on American Horror Story (2011–present) (Rice, 2012). RJ Mitte, an actor with CP, played the disabled son character in AMC's critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad from 2008 to 2013 (Gajewski, 2008).
Reality television ushered in more content about real disabled people's lives. The success in 2006 of the reality show about little people on the Learning Channel (TLC) cable network, Little People, Big World, drew good ratings (Crupi, 2006) and opened the doors for many more shows featuring disability such as the A&E network's Born This Way, an Emmy-winning reality show about young adults with Down syndrome in Southern California. Research about mass media audience members with disabilities in 2013 found that people with disabilities surveyed considered Little People, Big World to be empowering (Haller & Zhang, 2014).

1.1.1 Speechless

The Speechless series was a situation comedy about life when a nonverbal disabled person is part of the family. Disabled actor Micah Fowler uses a wheelchair but is not nonverbal like the JJ character. The JJ Dimeo character was the oldest child in the Dimeo family. He used a laser pointer with a letter board, with his attendant or a family member voicing his words. Speechless creator Scott Silveri grew up in this family; he has an older brother, Gregory, who was nonverbal and used a wheelchair (Rosen, 2017); Gregory Silveri died in 2018 at the age of 47 (Radhakrishnan, 2018). Silveri made a commitment to authentic casting from the beginning. Speaking in 2016, Silveri explained:
It was important to me that we cast someone with a disability because first of all; just for the reality of the show, we didn’t want to be faking it. And to do a show about inclusion and to get it wrong so fast … I didn’t want to mess it up in the most obvious way. Because the show has found a home on the network, I am hoping that experience will be replicated, because people are seeing that these stories are stories that can find an audience.
(Haller, 2016)
Even as a person with a disabled family member, Silveri did not rely on his personal experience with disability, he hired consultant Eva Sweeney, a California woman with CP who uses a laser pointer with a letter board and an attendant who voices for her. In fact, when Silveri met her, he scrapped the idea of the JJ character using a computer speech device. Silveri has said that adding JJ's attendant to the stories (played by the African American actor Cedric Yarbrough) created outside-the-family storylines (Rosen, 2017). Silveri says disabled consultant Eva Sweeney's feedback on episodes gave them many disability specific plotlines.
‘It was really helpful asking Eva what kind of things she’d like to see on the show, but also what kinds of things she didn’t want to see,’ Silveri says. ‘She was the one who turned me on to inspiration porn,’ the concept of relegating a person with a disability into a source of inspiration simply by virtue of their existence. ‘This show brought that to the masses; I’d be lying if I said I was even aware of that a year ago.’
(Rosen, 2017, p. 28)
Sweeney met with Speechless writers and answered questions about her life, especially in high school, and her communication method. She says she felt confident that the writers could create an authentic disabled character. She also read many of the scripts for the first season and argued against plotlines like having JJ learn to walk. In terms of disability, Sweeney said, “Don’t tell stories about him overcoming it; tell stories about him living with it” (Rosen, 2017, p. 30). In 2017, the show hired disabled comedian and actor Zach Anner, who has CP and uses a wheelchair, as a writer on the show (Bushman, 2017). Anner says he focused on making JJ an authentic portrayal.
Often, characters with disabilities are either inspiring or they are an object of pity to make other characters look better. And I feel like with what Speechless is doing, we’re finally getting characters with disabilities who are complicated, they’re funny, sometimes they can be jerks. And it's just great to see finally characters with disabilities that have depth and nuance, because that's been one of my biggest goals is to teach people that sometimes people with disabilities and cerebral palsy can be a**holes. And I feel like I’ve done a really good job of proving that to people.
(Bushman, 2017)
Many disability advocates praised Speechless. Disabled actor and comedian Maysoon Zayid applauded its use of a disabled actor: “If a person in a wheelchair can’t play Beyoncé, Beyoncé can’t play a person in a wheelchair” (Novic, 2018). Lawrence Carter-Long, the communications director at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), said Speechless promoted inclusion on many levels: “Speechless matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life” (Carter-Long, 2016).

1.2 Research about the impact of TV actors with disabilities

In the 1980s, two researchers evaluated the impact of a blind actor on television on audience attitudes. Researchers Tim Elliott and Keith Byrd (1984) studied the audience response to blind actor Tom Sullivan's representation of blindness in the show Mork and Mindy (1978–1982). In addition to viewing the episode, participants learned about misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness. Elliott and Byrd found that the viewing and discussion of stereotypes created a nonthreatening environment for participants, allowing them to shift away from stigmatized views of blindness to better understand accurate information.
Research in the 1990s about the depiction of Dow...

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