How Media Prevents Us From Truly Empathizing With Disabled Characters

The Establishment
The Establishment
Published in
8 min readAug 18, 2016

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By Alaina Leary

flickr/BagoGames

I’ve never been the target audience for a television show, a movie, or a novel. I’m white — but I’m also a woman, queer, and disabled. Growing up with a disabled mother, we didn’t have a lot of money. Needless to say, I’m not the viewer that marketers are typically spending money on to reach. In fact, it’s been documented that marketers and creators systematically fail to target disabled people, because they don’t believe there’s any money to be made from our community. Because of this, media isn’t generally made with disability — or any diverse experiences — at the forefront of anyone’s minds. (Or wallets.)

As a kid and a teen, I don’t think I ever saw “me” in a character — at least not fully. There have been characters I’ve strongly related to: Luna Lovegood, Poussey Washington, Lorelai Gilmore, Blue Sargent. But I never get to say that I relate to a character, and they’re also disabled, just like me — and that matters.

It matters because a lack of disabled representation further “others” people like me — from our friends, family, coworkers, professors, peers — creating a distance and gaps in understanding between disabled people and everyone else. According to proponents of the We Need Diverse Books movement, representation acts in two ways. It offers a mirror — so that people can see themselves reflected in the media they consume — as well as a window, so people can gain understanding and empathy about experiences they haven’t had personally.

Not seeing yourself reflected in media can also lead to low self-esteem. For me, it caused me to question whether my experiences as a disabled woman even mattered. A lack of representation allows us believe that the pervasive negative stereotypes are true — we aren’t living full, meaningful lives. It also fails to show those around us how complex we are, giving them an opportunity to glimpse an experience outside of their own, abled life, and foster empathy.

A complete lack of disabled representation is deeply problematic, but so is black-and-white, nuance-less, uncomplicated, and stereotypical disabled representation. So is disabled representation written by abled people for abled audiences, written as a pity party or trauma porn. So is disabled…

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The Establishment
The Establishment

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