For a moment, things were looking bleak for those with disabilities in the media.
“In Hollywood, people with disabilities are almost nonexistent,” declared one headline from The Washington Post. The accompanying story, written in 2016, went on to mention how people with disabilities were “woefully underrepresented” in film, and if they were included, it was mostly in supporting or inconsequential roles.
Television didn’t fare much better. That same year, it was revealed that 95 percent of characters with disabilities in the top 10 TV shows at the time were played by able-bodied actors.
It didn’t take another splashy headline to tell us the obvious. Hollywood was – for lack of a better word – trippin’ when it came to accurately portraying those with disabilities. Of course, many had opinions on why this was. But no opinion was as on-point as Ryan O’Connell’s, a gay and disabled television writer who had written for shows such as Will & Grace and Awkward.
“I think Hollywood is largely not interested in disabled people because they don’t view us as ‘sexy’ or ‘cool,’” he said in a 2016 interview. “To [Hollywood], we are just sad and something to be pitied.”
Yes, things were bleak. But then, years later – finally – the tide appeared to turn.
First came This Close in 2018, written by and starring deaf creators Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. The show, which will enter its second season this September, centers on two deaf best friends navigating their twenties in Los Angeles.
Then, in May 2019, the world was introduced to Netflix’s Special, which saw one of the first gay and disabled male lead characters grace the silver screen. The show was created by, written by and starred O’Connell, who has Cerebral Palsy in real life.
Finally, there were shows with disabled characters (played by disabled actors), navigating the world just like everyone else. It didn’t hurt that both shows garnered mass critical acclaim, both scoring above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes
But that wasn’t the end.
Just recently, Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to ever win a Tony. And it’s about damn time.
So what’s the big deal? Sure, it sounds cliché, but there is incredible power in seeing yourself not just represented, but actually, legitimately seen. At the same time, it’s a bit enraging: The fact that I, a physically disabled fellow myself, had to wait nearly 30 years to see someone like me on television is downright blasphemy.
But with this rage comes a reason to rejoice. In 2019, we are seeing more and more companies embracing the marginalized. Companies such as TomboyX, which makes gender neutral clothing for all bodies, is putting trans people, people of color, and plus size folks at the forefront. And they are making no apologies about it. Other organizations, such as The Riveter, built by women for women, are creating gender-inclusive workplaces that allow everyone to thrive.
There is power in portraying the marginalized, be it those with disabilities, or those who have for too long not been given a voice. By elevating the outcasts of society and telling their stories, organizations and media alike are validating their identities. No longer are the outcasts “others,” they simply are.
As demonstrated by shows like Special, or companies like TomboyX, it is when we push the marginalized into the mainstream that we are finally able to move beyond a state of bleakness, and into a time of beauty and celebration for everyone.