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Disability representation – why the media needs to do more

Greg Devine


man in wheelchair with backpack

The representation of disabilities within the media is certainly an improvement on what it used to be. However, the scope of representation could be wider, but this is not the main issue at hand—rather the type of representation.

Sex Education is a popular comedy drama series on Netflix that explores the trials and tribulations of teenagers. In series two, a new main character was introduced, played by George Robinson. The actor became paralysed at the age of 17, following an accident playing rugby. Robinson plays the role of Isaac Goodwin, someone the audience grows to dislike because he continually creates issues for the main protagonist, Otis.

What’s brilliant about Robinson’s role is his disability is not his main trait; being bound to a wheelchair has no bearing on his character’s role or place in the show. Too often, this is not the case. Films will incorporate a character with a disability, and this will be their only point of interest. I spoke to a number of people with disabilities and learned that they find this rather offensive. It implies that their disability defines them, rather than their personality.

Man with prosthetic leg running

Man with prosthetic leg running

EA Sports’ Madden 22 has represented disability in the right way. In the game mode ‘Face of the Franchise’, players take on the persona of an aspiring NFL sportsperson that hopes to be drafted. The character’s trainer is an amputee, though this is never verbally referenced. It’s only when watching the cut scenes that you notice the trainer’s prosthetic limb. At no point do any of the characters mention it and the camera never focuses on it either. There’s a good chance that gamers may not even notice this at all. It has no influence on the character; instead, it is an appearance feature—no different from having brown hair or blue eyes. EA’s choice to not make the trainer’s disability his defining feature means they have created a more realistic representation of an amputee, which is a rarity within the media.

According to the United Nations, 15% of the global population is disabled, but this is not represented by the media. If you visit your local town centre, you will undoubtedly see people with disabilities, but if you look in the background of your favourite TV shows, this is not reflected. The media needs to move away from portraying people with disabilities as being objects of sympathy and pity, towards showing them as regular people. By moving away from classic stereotypes, such as heroism, pity and dependence—pushing instead for greater inclusion—the media can create a more positive and realistic representation of the disabled community.

In truth, the only people who are qualified to decide how disability should be represented are people with disabilities. I believe the media should research the correct way to represent disability by asking those whose lives this ultimately affects, instead of displaying ignorance and relying on lazy stereotypes.

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