Characters with Disabilities: The Deficiency of Difference in Children’s Media

Jun 9, 2017   //   by   //   Community Blog  //  Comments Off on Characters with Disabilities: The Deficiency of Difference in Children’s Media
Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome book cover

Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome, by Clarabelle van Niekerk, Liezl Venter

As I’ve grown, I realized that there was no one like me in any of my recreational distractions. I’m and African American female who also happens to be completely deaf in one ear. Granted these may be setbacks that don’t outrageously affect my everyday life, but they are still part of who I am and I’d like to see that portrayed in the media. Once my difference became apparent to me I began a full-fledged examination on the shortage of characters with disabilities in the media. When entertainment doesn’t do its best to reflect real people and real-life experiences by diversifying its characters, we “real people” feel cheated. It affects the self-esteem of any child with a disability who can never relate to what they watch or read, and it creates a strain on children who haven’t learned how to properly approach other children who are disabled.

Wrong Representation:

Secondary Character Syndrome

The problem is not only the matter of the lack of children’s media that feature characters with disabilities but also the way they portray them. There is a difference between media about a character with a disability and media that includes a disabled character. The latter could easily be ensnared by “secondary character syndrome”, i.e. creating this character that is different from the others in race, sexual orientation, or special needs and using them as a prop or a filler instead of a character the audience can actually relate to. They have no story, they barely have a voice, and by the end of it you probably won’t remember their name (if they are given one). More effort should be put into making those characters count and creating a storyline around them that develops their needs and lifestyle in a way that accurately portrays someone who is disabled.

The Hero, or the Tragic Villain…

Presenting a disabled character should not be done in a pitying or condescending way, but rather in a way which sends the message that these are real people, with real emotions and they should be treated like everyone else. There has always this trope of making a person with a disability the hero or the villain. An example of the hero is found in the Daredevil comics where Matt Murdock becomes blind, but as a result all his other senses are heightened and he becomes a hero who fights crime. Not only is this unrealistic but it enforces over-achievement so those who are disabled never accept who they truly are. In Flipped (2003) by Wendelin Van Draanen one of the protagonists has an uncle who is disabled and lives in a home. Although he is fiercely loved, he is also seen as the man who sucks all of the money from the family because it is used to keep him in one of the nicer homes…thus the tragic villain.

Although the lack of special needs characters in the media is abhorrent, there are a few bright sparks that correctly depict strong disabled character as leads:

  • Sesame Street (Blindness, Deafness, Wheelchair use, Autism)
  • Finding Nemo/ Finding Dory (Abnormality in the limbs, Short-term memory loss)
  • How to Train your Dragon (Amputee)
  • Wonder by R.J Palacio (Severe Facial Abnormality)
  • My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete (Autism)
  • Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome by Clarabelle van Niekerk (Asperger Syndrome)

As a young woman I now look back on the media that I grew up with and its lack of options; admittedly, things are getting a little bit better — there are a few more options for kids now — but I still call for the media to step up their game! In the meantime, parents can read these books and watch these TV shows and movies with their children to start conversations with them about how to approach kids with disabilities. They can use it as a teaching technique; pointing out the characters’ differences and highlighting how others view or treat them. Hopefully, with a partnership between the media creating more ability-diverse characters and with the dialoguing between parents and children, we can better support the diversely abled “real people” and kids in this world!

About the Author |

Shayanna Seymour

Shayanna Seymour is currently a student in the Publishing: Book, Magazine and Electronic program at Centennial College. In 2015 she graduated with an Associates Degree in Social Studies from the University College of the Cayman Islands.

Shayanna is a lover of words, a hardcore bibliophile, and a rebel without a cause. Her future aspirations include writing a Young Adult novel and adopting as many dogs as she can. She currently resides in Toronto.

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