When you look into media representation, there is a repeated pattern of storytelling of what society values and doesn’t value. I’ve never really noticed it until I had Bella, and now that I’m well into parenting a soon-to-be teenager, it’s loud and clear that disability is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle when it comes down to embracing diversity and overcoming disability taboos in the media.
We all know the classic movie of Forrest Gump that came out in 1994.
Tom Hanks plays a witty character, who has a physical and cognitive disability. The story spans over 30 years of his life, leading us through his experience as a college football star, fighting in Vietnam, and even being a captain of a shrimp boat. This movie was able to tug at our hearts, making us feel good when the movie closes with Forrest reuniting with his love of his life Jenny and their son Forrest Gump Junior. It was a popular romantic film that was both comical and dramatic. The film was an enormous success and won many awards such as the Academy Awards for Best Picture, and the Golden Globes. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge fan of this movie when it came out, but it wasn’t until I experienced the ‘disabled life’ myself, I soon realized that the character of Forrest Gump was being portrayed as an inspiration for just simply being him. I am often approached with comments about Bella such as, “She’s so brave and strong. I don’t think I can ever be like her. Wow, how does she do it? ” These comments never sat quite well with me, and I never had the courage to challenge these words either. So here’s where I start my sermon... Bella has never had a choice to go through what she is living today. She is simply not a hero because of her disability. The focus of these comments are on Bella’s impairments, rather than on her as a person. Here are some guiding posts that will continue to help challenge our words and actions: Were these comments being made because it helped the person saying it feel better about themselves? Were the comments made in a context where the system was oppressing my daughter or my family from accessing a service, program or even education? Think back at how Forrest Gump was portrayed in the movie, and how this character resonated and connected to you as a person with or without a disability. Was this character shown as an extraordinary heroic individual for their disability, or for who they were? Food for thought.
Wait, I’m straightening the teacher-hat on my head because it's not coming off yet… let me walk you through another thinking routine. You’ve seen this image many times. It’s on bathroom stalls, building doors, and marked as signage for maybe 3 (if I’m lucky 4) parking spots at your local grocery store.
Then there is the refreshed image that you may have seen in some parking lots today, and possibly used in newer buildings.
The Forward Movement is an advocacy group working to re frame the conversation around ability, and promote accessibility and inclusion for all abilities. I am sharing this awesome crew because they are currently lobbying our province of Ontario to amend the Building Code and Highway Traffic Act to allow the shift of the static wheelchair symbol to a dynamic symbol. A movement to change something so simple can really make us see things differently. Ask yourself this, how do the images around us contribute to how we portray people with disabilities? In what ways do the images have an effect on how people positively or negatively see themselves? Food for thought. Keep on chewing please...
I recently attended a virtual ReelEducation Film Engagement Day called, Challenging Disability Stereotypes in the Media. This youth-led conversation was anchored on the film, Shakespeare in Tokyo. Sit back and get comfortable, I’m bringing this film right to you so please stay with me because this is well worth watching…
I always like to share my new learning through my blog. And today It is my pleasure to share my #MomBehindTheLabel platform with the moderator of ReelEducation’s Challenging Disability Stereotypes in the Media, Tai Young and guest panel speaker Marya Bangash.
Hey! I’m Tai. I am currently 16 years old and in grade 11 at an arts high school. I’ve been so lucky to have been given many incredible opportunities to share my story, and reach many audiences. I have co-hosted events with many students, and spoken to donors about my life as a person who uses a wheelchair. The message I try to share with the world is that people with disabilities are not like society's perception. We have plenty of story lines and depth, and more identities than just our disabilities. Yes, they are an important and significant part of our lives, but not the only part. In my free time, I enjoy writing poems/spoken word pieces and creating short films. Also, I am currently learning the ukulele! One day, I hope to go into performing arts, and writing. I’ve loved theatre, singing and acting since I was very young, and hopefully one day, I can turn my passion into a career. I talk, a lot, and public speaking is such a fun way to educate and hopefully change the minds of the people I come across. In my speeches, I share the story of my disability and the value of activity, and getting involved. I’ve been grateful to share my story as a Holland Bloorview Ambassador, Easter Seals Ambassador, and a CBC writer for the article, POINT OF VIEW - Why the word 'disabled' makes me cringe. The future I hope to see for people with disabilities, is a future where everyone is seen equally, and given the support needed to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Hi! My name is Marya. I’m a 20 year old business student in my final year of college, homestretch! I’m an advocate for people with disabilities in the City of Toronto and York Region area. I’m an ambassador for Holland Bloorview and Smile Canada. During quarantine I’ve taken social media to my advantage and have started creating and pumping out content to combat ableism. I started my content creating journey on Tiktok, then Instagram and now Twitter. My work primarily focuses on ableism that Muslims may face. However, it’s not limited to this. I grew up in an immigrant Muslim household so my experiences look different from a traditional Canadian child. I use my platform to discuss both ableism and Islamophobia and how they both have negatively impacted my life. My goal with my advocacy work is to ensure no young girls grow up with the insecurities, doubts, fears, and negative thoughts that I did. I want to spark change and conversation both in the disability and Muslim community. There aren’t enough BIPOC advocates out there and I want to make my name and place known.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: So let’s get chatting... My first thought after watching Shakespeare in Tokyo, was the greatness that came out of having an actor who has a disability play the role of a character with the disability. The script does a great job challenging society’s views on people with Down Syndrome and disabilities in general. I liked how the script magically put the audience in Ben’s point of view, sharing the impact he has on others as the plot develops. The model of disability representation in this film reflected the diversity in disability itself. What parallels do you see with the character Ben, embarking on his solo adventure to discover Tokyo, to how society sees you?
TAI: A lot of the time, society as a whole, has a preset view of what disability is. However, many people just need to give the disability community a chance. In the short film, the people Ben encountered along his adventure, were facing their own struggles. Once they gave Ben a chance, he turned their days around and brought a needed smile to their faces. Unfortunately, in our current society, people may not be open to the wisdom Ben has to share, and may shun him. This is due to the stigma, and alienation of people with disabilities. Personally in my life, when people first see me, I am often interrogated before I do anything, it seems as if they are shocked to see me navigate life independently. Asking if I need help is always a kind thing, but once I respond with no, I don’t need to be asked a million more times. This experience relates a lot to how Ben wanted to go free but his brother held him back despite his capabilities. Disabilities aren't liabilities.
Once Ben was free, he thrived and experienced so much life. The continual oppression and silencing of our voices contributes to the feeling of isolation, and loneliness. I unfortunately know many with disabilities who dislike going out, and trying new things. For many of them they feel as if their life is over because they move differently, this is so far from the truth. Disability has so much capability, the world just needs to change its perception, and make needed modifications to the way society functions. Doing so will create inclusivity, and acceptance for everyone.
MARYA: Throughout the short film something that stuck out to me was Ben's brother and the way he treated him. I’ve had people in my life see me as a charity case or something to worry about. I’ve even heard things like “what will we do when she’s older”. I didn’t know why I was hearing these things until I got older. It’s disheartening to know that people with disabilities might have someone in their lives who just wants to ship them away, it’s hurtful to think about. On a more positive note, seeing how each character in the story interacted with Ben extremely nonchalantly was amazing to see. When he sat down for a meal with a young lady at a restaurant, they started striking conversation immediately. Her initial scared reaction is also something I deal with when I’m minding my own business outside. I admired how the young lady didn’t get extremely rude, she slowly settled in and bonded with Ben. She also wasn’t invasive and didn’t ask the typical weird questions like “what’s wrong with you”.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: The Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital's Dear Everybody campaign is a national movement to end stigma and eliminate bias towards disability. The campaign returns for the fourth year with powerful images that highlight the exclusion of people with disabilities from the media landscape, challenging the public to demand more inclusive representation. You have both had experiences working within the TV industry, in the media spotlight, can you share some of your experiences with the work you have done?
TAI: From a young age, I have always said yes, to speaking at events and sharing my story. Especially acting, but something that I noticed was that the acting world was not as welcoming as I thought it would be. There were a lot of great people, but the actual facilities involved weren’t so great. One instance of difficulty working in the acting field was when I had a character on a show, and my trailer wasn’t accessible. I had to climb in and have someone lift my chair behind me. It was extremely inconvenient, and a little awkward. Another constant battle I face happens at every audition. Every time it’s: Tai’s wheelchair vs the flimsy piece of wood that is supposed to be a ramp, or even sometimes, the 3 steps up to the right door. Not only does disability affect the actors, but the viewers. Disability is something that our world is surprised to see in the media. We go ‘woah look at that’ it shouldn’t be a surprise. The characters with disabilities also rarely have any depth. The media doesn’t show that people with disabilities are fully fledged members of society, not just tropes and sob stories.
MARYA: My advocacy work only fully took off in September 2019. I started to use my social media a lot more and produce content that I wished to see more of when growing up. Whether it was random wheelchair jokes, discussing super serious topics, and, most importantly for me - intersectionality. I’ve always wanted to shed light on how being Muslim and a person with a disability isn’t easy and often brings up underrated challenges. Most of the work I do is just personal passion projects however I’ve also done a handful of work with various media outlets and companies after my social media numbers increased. I quickly noticed when doing interviews and speaking pieces with the media here that they would conveniently cut out any discussions where I mentioned my cultural background and how it’s helped me become confident. When I mentioned I find comfort spiritually it was also ALWAYS cut out. This gave me an Islamophobic vibe and made me extremely uncomfortable. However not all experiences are negative, I’ve had a handful of positive ones too. Working with various companies and them allowing me to express myself in my most authentic form means everything to me. Being able to voice myself as who I am, my personal beliefs and personality is amazing. I don’t feel like I have to filter myself or have a different personality for the camera.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Do you think a right representation of people with disabilities is possible? How can companies, brands, and even the acting industry help ensure more realistic and accurate portrayals of those with disabilities?
TAI: When it comes to representation, if you are writing a story including someone with a disability, it is extremely important to consult people with lived experience. Telling stories that make out groups to be different than their truth is extremely harmful. We want to see diversity all through the process. Not just on the screen. Many organizations include disability to hop on the trend when it’s not a trend. When hiring actors and performers try to hire the most authentic actor possible, and keep your mind open to all characters who may have disabilities. Always remember, disability isn’t a bad or sad thing.
MARYA: The right way to represent a minority is by not making a huge deal of it. Allowing us to co-exist in the media and not making us feel like a checkbox is so vital. Start to cast actual people with disabilities in roles, whether they tell the story of a person with a disability or not. The rare occasion that a person with a disability is casted in a role, they’re pushed into the depressed/inspiring trope and nothing else. We aren’t ever given the proper space to be creative and express who we are as people with disabilities and how we exist in society. There is a huge lack of BIPOC with disabilities in the media and this made me feel extremely lonely growing up. I want to make a difference and do something about the lack of our presence.
Thank you Tai and Marya for taking the time to contribute to this post, as your voice will be valuable to my readers. To end this post, I’d like to share some amazing advertisements that are happening out there in the media. When I was doing my research to write this post, I came across a brand who got inclusive marketing right. In the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, they featured the Mars Chocolate brand in a coveted slot during the opening ceremony. The famous Maltesers chocolate created a series of ‘Look on the Light Side’ ads that were inspired by real life stories from disabled people, and aiming to celebrate awkward situations from embarrassing moments. The objective of the ads was to prove that humour can be a powerful force for positive change in breaking down disability barriers. These two were my favourite...
And as you come to the end of this post, go check out the Mastsermind Toys Holiday 2020 Gift Guide as this is another example of a company who is paving the way for disability representation! Turn a few pages into the guide and you will see someone you know...
Mastermind Toys has also come out with a segment on their Holiday Helper on their IG feed, sharing gift ideas when shopping for someone with autism. This post was in response to customers’ request! Thanks Mastermind Toys for taking the first step in not only signing the #DearEverybody agreement, but also taking the initiative to welcome the autism community into your space.
It is obvious that persons with disabilities are sorely lacking in the media and they need to do more than just slapping on a picture of a person in a wheelchair and calling it a day. Disability should not be seen as a loss or limitation, rather disability representation means including people with the visible disabilities (those who are deaf, blind, have amputations) and also with invisible disabilities (like epilepsy, learning disabilities). We need to see disability as a model where we learn to conceptualize it, talk about it, and work with it and how it is represented in our thinking. We all know that when we don’t see ourselves, we feel invisible. I am hoping the messaging in this post spreads, and one day we are able to watch a music video, open the local flyers for groceries that week, watch the daily news, or even sit in an interview being asked questions by someone just like me.