Introduction Part 1: Disability Representation

In middle school, one of my teachers used a wheelchair to get around. He had lost the use of his legs early in life, though I never asked him the details of that. He was a smart, funny, and tremendously kind person. He’d always joke about himself—laughing about distracted driving while he was on the move, or checking for cops before he “sped away.” To be honest, I never knew whether to laugh at these jokes or stay solemn and dignified. Even more, I didn’t really know how to interact with him. I was always concerned about accidently saying something insensitive or offending him in some way. But as our friendship grew, I began to treat him like I treated everyone else. I began to see him like I saw everyone else. I looked up to him; and I laughed at his jokes. He taught me a lot. And he taught me that the worst way to treat anyone is to walk on egg shells—or to be so afraid of offense that we never allow an honest and vulnerable relationship to form.

We often classify people in order to make sense of the world. Classification is the first step to rational thinking: eat this plant and not this; stay away from this animal; use this material for a solid foundation and not this one. But despite its necessity, classification often gets us in trouble with people. We use stereotypes to navigate the world around us and to define ourselves and others. But often, stereotypes end up reducing our landscape until we are left with nothing to explore but our own assumptions. We classify people based on race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability, amongst a heap of other characteristics. As Stuart Hall argues in Race: A Floating Signifier, the problem exists when we perceive random aspects of human diversity and place value on them.1 In other words, we generalize an entire group of the human population based on random differences in skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. Moreover, we often divide society on these fabricated lines—allowing and restraining powers and privileges of existence contingent on these signifiers.

The variations on human expression are tremendous. Art has long served as the means by which we communicate and express our understanding of life. Since art reflects us, we naturally find various representations of people in literature, drama, film, and other forms of art. We believe that these images teach us how to interact with those around us.2 Our purpose here is to analyze these representations and evaluate, as best we can, the perceptions of disability presented in American media.

The truth is my interaction with my teacher was primarily constructed on false stereotypes that I picked up from film and other media—that I should have pity for him and should be extra sensitive around him because he likely struggled with self-esteem. In reality, those estimates could not have been further from the truth. As our relationship grew, these stereotypes began to crumble. It seems that the whole topic of disability already stigmatizes the conversation: disability. We often focus our perception of disabled people on what they cannot do. In other words, we are already giving them an inherently negative definition based on some floating standard of “normal” ability. To accept the diversity of humanity is the realize that we all just exist a bit differently.

As we begin our conversation on disability representation, we need to outline a few key terms: Introduction Part 2.

[1] Stuart Hall, Race: A Floating Signifier (Media Education Foundation, 1997).
[2] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed., (West Sussex: Blackwell Pub., 2009), 3.


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