Finally, Disability Representation in Television and Film

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Collage of television and films that show people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Have you ever sat down to watch TV or a movie and wondered: “Where is the representation of people with disabilities? Where are the actors or characters that align with me or my family member or someone I support? Why don’t I see more people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities on screen?” If so, you’re not alone and due to the persistence of individuals with disabilities and other members of the entertainment industry, this has begun to change.

In January of 2020, an open letter with signatures from 72 actors and directors was released discussing the importance of representation of disabilities in TV and film that features actors with disabilities in those roles. Statistics show that 95% of television shows that feature a person with a disability are played by actors who do not have any type of disability. Of the 61 Oscar nominations and 27 Oscar wins for roles that showcase characters with disabilities, only two of those roles were played by an actor with a disability themselves.

While it is difficult to find television and film that depicts people with disabilities (whether the roles are played by actors with disabilities or not), it is even rarer to find content that depicts people with disabilities in a positive light as they navigate relationships, sexuality, and sexual health education.

Some shows that are relatively new and stand out as sex positive and disability positive are:  Atypical on Netflix, The Good Doctor on ABC, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay on FreeForm. All three shows follow young adults as they navigate their family, community, school, friends, employment, relationships, and life goals as a person with an Intellectual or Developmental Disability.

Kayla Cromer, one of the main actors in Everything’s Gonna be Okay is a woman on the Autism Spectrum who plays a character on the Autism Spectrum as well. This is a huge step for the disability community as she is the first actor with Autism to play the lead character in a TV show. She is clear to acknowledge, “by not casting people with autism to play autistic characters like those, they’re acting like we don’t exist”.

Knowing what media is out there that includes representation for those with I/DD is important. This ensures that someone of any age sees themselves in mainstream media, which is an important part of acceptance, self-love, and normalization of life with a disability. I recommend anyone, regardless of disability or not, check out these shows to increase awareness and allyship for individuals with disabilities.


Relationships and Disability: Using the Media as a Teaching Tool

The media is here to stay so why not use it as a teaching tool. Here are four video clips from 3 different shows, Atypical, Glee, and Everything’s Going to be Okay. To use these video clips a teaching tool, play the clip and then, discuss the clip using the questions below. Through these videos you are teaching relationship skills, but also, showing people with disabilities on the screen which has the added benefit of people with disabilities feeling like they are understood and belong.

#1 Atypical

Atypical is a show about a high school student named Sam, his sister, and his parents. The show focuses on his life as a young man on the Autism Spectrum and how he navigates employment, school, relationships, higher education, future goals, etc. The scenes in question revolve around Sam and his girlfriend Paige. Both #1 and #2 clips go very well together.

This scene follows a previous scene where Sam tells Paige in front of her whole family at Olive Garden (meeting them for the first time) that he doesn’t love her – and is very matter of fact, but very hurtful and causes an issue with their relationship where they break up. This scene is the aftermath of that revelation, which speaks very well to communication and complexity of relationships:

Show Video

Questions for Discussion:

How do you think Paige feels?

How is she using her body language to tell Sam how she feels?

Is that speaking up, bossy, or shy? Why do you think so?

What do you think about the way Paige is telling Sam how she feels? Is it working? Why or why not?

What advice would you give Paige about how to communicate when someone hurts you?

Does this scene feel familiar or realistic to you? Could this really happen in your life or the life of someone you know with a disability?

#2 Atypical

This second scene from Atypical shows Sam and Paige working through their relationship issues after Paige screams at him on Sam’s front lawn (previous clip).

Show Video

Questions for Discussion:

What does Sam say about empathy?

What is empathy?

Is he speaking up, being shy or bossy? Why do you think that?

What does Sam say to Paige that helps her feel better?

What did Sam learn about honesty? What’s the social rule that Paige teaches him?

What will this exchange teach Sam about communication, especially in romantic relationships, moving forward?

How do you think they are both feeling right now?

She says they aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, but wants to fool around. How might that be confusing? Do you think Sam is okay with that or not? How could he tell her if he isn’t okay with kissing when they aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend?

Does this scene feel familiar or realistic to you? Could this really happen in your life or the life of someone you know with a disability?

#3 Glee

This scene from Glee touches on stigmas and beliefs about a person with a disability (down syndrome) dating, having sex, and having a relationship; especially if it is with someone who does not have a disability.

Show Video

Becky, a woman with down syndrome, in the show Glee. Becky is wearing a cheerleader uniform and holding pom poms.

This is a photo of Becky, as she is not in the video clip:

Questions for Discussion:

Why do you think the women are asking the guy(Darrell)) all of these questions?

Is it okay that they are asking him the questions? Why or why not?

What if someone without a disability wants to date someone with a disability? Is that okay or not? How come?

What positive messages does this scene teach us about people with disabilities and their relationships and sex?

Does this scene feel familiar or realistic to you? Could this really happen in your life or the life of someone you know with a disability?

#4 Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

Everything’s Gonna be Okay is about two sisters, who go to live with their half brother when their dad dies from cancer. The show navigates family relationships, dealing with grief, and the natural challenges that being a young adult comes with; both with and without a disability diagnosis. Matilda, one of the half sisters, and a main character on the show, has Autism. This scene is from the show, Matilda confesses to Luke (a schoolmate) that she has a crush on him and wonders why he doesn’t have a crush on her. She also talks about how communication regarding crushes and being direct is the best approach for people interacting with someone on the Spectrum or with I/DD:

Show Video

Questions for Discussion:

What is a crush? How does it feel to have a crush on someone?

How can you tell if someone is being friendly or they have a crush on you?

What does “lead me on” mean?

How can being friendly send a confusing message?

If you were Matilda, what would you want Luke to do?

How do you think Matilda feels now that Luke has gone to the bathroom?

Does this scene feel familiar or realistic to you? Could this really happen in your life or the life of someone you know with a disability? Does your opinion change on this knowing that the actress who plays Matilda does have Autism in real life?

Wrap Up

All of these clips teach communication and relationships skills, but also push the boundaries of what we think is acceptable for people with disabilities and sexual relationships. Bring the media into your classes to show the lives of people with disabilities. People with I/DD want and also struggle in relationships, just like all of us!


Article written by Elevatus Advisory Board Member:
Rachel Kaplan, MPH

Lesson developed by:
Rachel Kaplan, MPH
Katherine McLaughlin, M.Ed. ASSECT Certified Sexuality Educator

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