Q&A: Breaking Down the Disabled Underrepresentation in Mainstream Media

Elizabeth Ellcessor headshot

Elizabeth Ellcessor says a recent study found that only 2.4% of speaking roles in mainstream films are disabled characters. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In the “Disability and Media” course that she teaches, University of Virginia media studies assistant professor Elizabeth Ellcessor has been pleased to see her students gaining a vocabulary for talking about disability with respect, and becoming aware of lingering stereotypes in the mainstream media.

“While disability remains underrepresented, it is actually a very important theme for understanding a wide range of media content,” Ellcessor said. “Superhero films, popular documentaries, Oscar winners, teen dramas and reality TV all routinely deal with themes such as mental illness, acquired disability, bodily difference and the pursuit of (able-bodied) health.”

Students in Ellcessor’s course consider a range of issues, from disability onscreen to amateur creators, the history of closed captioning and changes in streaming media access.

“Disability in media is a growing area of research,” Ellcessor said, “and we’re lucky that UVA is one of a handful of universities where courses on this topic are available for undergraduates.”

She recently took some time to expound upon her thoughts.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the research you’ve done pertaining to people with disabilities in mainstream media?

A. I have been researching media and disability for nearly a decade, touching on representations, access technologies and disabled people as media audiences and creators. My first book, “Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation,” addressed what makes digital media accessible – usable – to people with a range of disabilities, including visual, hearing and motion impairments. Often, this involves changes to the design or coding of digital media, including websites, video games and mobile apps.

While I’ve been doing this work for quite some time, it’s particularly apt that we’re talking about this so soon after the Supreme Court refused to hear the recent Dominos case, in which the pizza chain was sued by a blind customer, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, for having an inaccessible website. The court’s refusal means that a lower court decision stands, and disabled people can use the ADA in this way to claim that online spaces – just like offline restaurants – have a legal responsibility to offer accessible means of communication.

That said, one of the most interesting findings in “Restricted Access” was that the things that make technologies legally or technologically accessible were valued, but were not the top priorities when disabled people reflected on accessibility. Instead, most users wanted to see cultural shifts in which disabled perspectives were welcomed and a variety of needs were routinely taken into account. I’ve talked about this as “cultural accessibility,” a way of thinking about access as not a mechanized process, but an active process of inclusion in the production, representation and reception of media content.

Q. In a recent Washington Post article, you said not much mainstream media content has been made by or for disabled people. Why do you think that is? What are the underlying factors?

A. There are a number of related explanations for the general lack of mainstream media content made by or for disabled people. One explanation is that disability has a long history of being stigmatized or excluded from public life and culture, and that this has extended to film, television and other media content. Thus, much 20th-century media depicted disabled people as villains, as objects of pity, or as opportunities for able-bodied characters to “learn a lesson.” 

Stemming from similar stereotypes, there has been very limited work for disabled actors, as there are often unspoken assumptions that disabled actors won’t be able to do the job, or that accommodating disability would be too much trouble on set. Even for disabled characters, it’s been common to cast able-bodied actors, who are then often praised for their “daring” or “transformative” work in portraying disability on screen. Such casting practices mean that disability representations are often not as fully accurate or insightful as they could have been if played by an actor familiar with those experiences.

The same concerns about accommodations, as well as a lack of role models or pipeline, can keep disabled people from getting work in media production. This is connected to internship and educational opportunities that take ability for granted and often do not know how to offer accommodations that might be needed. Without early opportunities, the chance for disabled creators to produce their vision in mainstream media can be very remote.

Q. By and large, how do you think people with disabilities are represented in mainstream media? Has there been any progress in, say, the last decade?

A. There have been definite shifts in how disability is represented within the past decade, though a recent study found that still only 2.4% of speaking roles in mainstream films are disabled characters.

Underrepresentation is still a problem, but we’re seeing more representations that explicitly address or challenge stereotypes. These include “Switched at Birth,” about a deaf and hearing family; “Speechless,” a comedy about a boy and his communicative aide; and a number of streaming shows, such as “Atypical” and “Special.”

Not all of these are “perfect” representations, but each of them attempts to go beyond stereotypes and to make disability part of a character’s overall experience and perspective.

Q. How has the ability for people with disabilities to create their own content via YouTube and other platforms changed things for the better?

A. YouTube and other platforms allow people to make and distribute content that couldn’t get made in Hollywood, and that means that a number of minoritized creators have used these platforms to express themselves and, in some cases, launch careers. Some web series, such as “My Gimpy Life,” directly tackle issues that affect disabled actors and creators.

There are also robust vlogging and social media communities in which people can create and share their experiences, their art, and their perspectives via writing, memes and other forms of engaging communication. All of this has resulted in an amplification, as disabled creators have an opportunity to find an audience and disabled audiences have an opportunity to find content that is culturally accessible, that does speak to them.

Part of the value in this shift is that it allows for disability content to exist without centering on able-bodied audiences; content is being made by and for disabled people, with the interest and attention of able-bodied people a secondary concern.

Q. Are there drawbacks for people with disabilities to this new age of content creation?

A. While disabled people can take advantage of some digital media platforms to express themselves and find new content, it’s important to remember that many of these platforms were not designed with them in mind. So, for instance, many social media sites have partial or buggy implementation of accessibility features for images; this means that many people with visual impairments cannot reliably access that content.

Similarly, while YouTube offers automatic captioning, these captions are often low-quality, meaning that creators who care about disability access must still produce and upload their own caption files. While these platforms offer opportunities, they often reproduce access constraints that indicate disabled users will have to find work-arounds to create their own accessibility.

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