Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Is disability becoming better represented in the media?

This year’s Oscar nominees featured two films and a documentary which shine a light on disability in various forms.

The film Sound of Metal tells the story of a drummer in a rock band who gradually loses his hearing, Feeling Through follows a teen who meets a Deafblind man who changes his life, and Crip Camp (a documentary) explores how a 70s camp for disabled youths affected the US disability rights movement.

The nominations signify a step forward for disability representation in Hollywood, which has been continually criticised for a lack of diversity. Disability organisations across the globe are thrilled and hope that this recognition will lead to more films featuring people with disabilities.

However, although these nominations signify a step in the right direction, they have also faced criticism from those with disabilities themselves.

The nominees have faced criticism from those with disabilities themselves

While Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed (Ruben) was praised for learning sign language for his role, many in the Deaf community questioned why a hearing actor was chosen over a Deaf actor for the lead role. The film did feature other Deaf actors, but they played minor, supporting roles.

The director of the film, Darius Marder, has commented on Deaf representation in the film, saying: “I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to represent Deaf people unless the actors were Deaf or from a Deaf culture”. While co-star Paul Raci, who played Joe, was raised by Deaf parents, the filmmaker decided that Ruben should be played by a hearing actor because the character and audience both had to be “thrust into an unfamiliar world”.

The issue for many is that the film was led by a team who are mostly hearing, which means there are problems with the accuracy and representation of Deafness. For some in the Deaf community, the film has made them feel seen. For others, it serves as a reminder that yet again, Deaf people have been excluded from telling their own stories.

Contrastingly, Feeling Through’s co-star Robert Tarango, who plays a Deafblind character, is Deafblind himself. In fact, Tarango is the first Deafblind actor to ever star in a film. A moment which has been described as monumental in the Deafblind community and many are delighted about. However, not everyone is pleased with the portrayal.

Haben Girma, who is Deafblind herself, has criticised the film for playing on stereotypes and not providing an accurate representation of what it’s like to be deaf and blind. She has said it portrays “ableist and racist messages” and “does not represent Deafblind people”. For example, in the film, Artie hands over his wallet to Tereek (Steven Prescod), a complete stranger he met a matter of moments ago. Haben says she would never do this and doesn’t know anyone in the Deafblind community who would.

A noticeable lack of representation of those with learning disabilities 

Crip Camp, on the other hand, has received a great deal of praise from the disabled community. The Oscar nominee is a factual documentary which uses real footage from the camp in the 70s, telling of how disabled people took back ownership of the word “cripple” and influenced the US disability rights movement.

The documentary was co-directed and co-starred by Jim LeBrecht, who has spinal bifida and uses a wheelchair. He was asked by Nicole Newnham to co-direct the film, in order to provide a disability-led perspective.

Even so, this year’s Oscar nominees only featured physical and sensory disabilities, with a noticeable lack of representation for those with learning disabilities. And unfortunately, it’s not just the Oscar’s which lack this representation.

Research from the learning disability charity Mencap found that just 34% of the public said they’d seen someone with a learning disability in a TV programme, and only 12% said they’d seen a learning-disabled person in a film in the past six months.

Considering there are 1.5 million people in the UK who have a learning disability, the representation we are currently seeing falls far short of where it should be. We see a variety of people every day in the real world, so why isn’t this reflected in the media?

We must continue to push for better representation and allow those who have disabilities to play disabled roles

However, learning disability representation has improved over recent years. In the UK, Tommy Jessop became the first actor with Down’s Syndrome to star in a prime-time BBC drama, Line of Duty. The current season rakes in millions of viewers weekly, a huge triumph for learning-disabled representation.

When asked what needs to improve, Tommy said: “I wish TV makers would think more creatively and give people with learning disabilities any role – romantic, fantasy, comedy, shop assistants, office workers. I’d like to play James Bond, Romeo, Dobby in Harry Potter or a detective or many other roles.”

In the world of soap operas, Liam Bairstow, who also has Down’s Syndrome, has played Alex Warner in Coronation Street since 2015. After taking a short career break, he is due to appear back on screen later this year. Liam is an ambassador for Mencap, who have praised him for “using his voice to try and break down those unnecessary barriers.”

While it’s important to celebrate the small victories, we must continue to push for better representation and allow those who have disabilities to play disabled roles. We need to continue building on current progress, in order to prevent this progress from disappearing from our screens again.

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