The portrayal of the disabled on TV and in the movies

It seems as if those of us in wheelchairs are rarely seen in the media at all except to be used as gags. I have noticed that whenever someone in a wheelchair is portrayed, he or she is almost always shown falling out of his or her wheelchair for some reason. I guess the writers only think of us as being dramatic or accident prone. Here are a few examples:

During the movie Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise’s character was shown losing control and sliding down a ramp in his wheelchair. In another scene, I believe he fell out or jumped out of his chair entirely.

Jude Law’s character jumped out of his chair in Gattaca only to crawl up a staircase with his arms.

As for TV, on Seinfeld, there was an episode with a woman in a wheelchair which was supposed to be defective, and sure enough, she lost control and went rolling quickly down a steep hill.

And lastly, on Monk, there was an episode where he was injured, used a wheelchair, and also went rolling down a very steep sidewalk.

As a disabled person, I find it insulting and quite untrue that all we do is fall out of our wheelchairs. I’m sure people think it is funny, but I think it sends a message that this is what disabled people are like, that it is a common experience and our situation is something to be used to laugh at in the media.

A lot of disabled people do the same things that everyone else does. We drive, we go to college, we work, we volunteer, we get married and raise families. It is a shame there are no characters on TV or in the movies that portray the positive and very normal things that we do.

When we are portrayed as bumbling idiots who lose control, it just reinforces a negative stereotype that is extremely hard to overcome. I wonder why it is not okay to portray racial stereotypes in the media, but it IS okay when the group is the disabled community.

The first portrayal I thought of when I read your first line was the character of Kevin Girardi in the t.v. show Joan of Arcadia.

Hi -

I’m not familiar with that character, but I recall the show you mentioned.

It’s been awhile, so I’m not 100% sure I remember all the details, but he was in a car accident due to a friend drinking an driving. One of the side-stories was his dealing with it. I thought it was a healthy portrayal but I myself am not in a wheelchair so I don’t know if someone who is would be offended by it.

I personally, wouldn’t be offended by that because it can very well be true. That type of recovery can be meaningful if portrayed with sensitivity.

I guess what offends me is the jumping/falling out of one’s wheelchair or falling down steep inclines just to either shock or get a laugh from the audience.

Did you see last Sunday’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? The woman they built a house for was in a wheelchair, but she was first in her family to graduate college, and she is raising four kids (all teenagers :eek:) by herself. Grant it, it’s just one episode, but I found it to be a very positive portrayal.

There’s also a show that used to be on FX called 30 Days, in which they take people and put them in totally different circumstances for 30 days (hence the title). In one of the episodes, a former NFL player agreed to remain wheelchair bound for 30 days. He was hanging out with people in wheelchairs and played on this wheelchair rugby team.

It was really interesting, and none of the wheelchair-bound people I saw were weak or constantly falling (unless you count while they were playing Rugby… but they were playing rough!).

It’s on Hulu if you wanna check it out. :smiley:

For much of society, those who are considered not as strong in body or mind as others are mistreated and abused and ridiculed. It’s an unfortunate part of our society and humans in general.

I make no assumptions, but I was wondering if you as a disabled person have seen any positive changes in society towards those who have disabilities? On the face of it, there seems to be some good changes, but then I don’t know what it’s like on a personal level for those with disablities. Maybe you could help some of us get an idea of what your life is like in this regard?

As an aside, I was debating with another person on the forum about how to refer to those with disabilities either physical or mental. Are you offended by terms such as “physically handicapped” or “mentally handicapped”? What do you think is an appropriate term for those with “disabilities”?

Thank you and God bless.


Disabled people rarely get good roles in Hollywood, unfortunately. But I know of a Jesuit who helps disabled actors be all they can be and use their disabiliy for good in Hollywood.

I like the term “mentally disabled” myself. Or “mentally ill”. It’s the mos accurate description of someone like me. Everyone is disabled or ill due to original sin, and some of us are more so than others. It’s our advantage, of course, in that we share more in Jesus’ Passion.

Thank you, Eucharisted.

So, you prefer “disabled” rather than “handicapped”?

I think what makes me generally use the term “handicapped” is because when I come into a parking lot the signs for disabled persons are written as “handicapped” parking spaces. I know, that may be a really superficial understanding of what the proper term is, but it’s the term I’m unfortunately most accustomed to. I hope no one is disrespected by my using that term.

When I think about it more, if “handicapped” is seen as an improper term, then I would like to see the signs changed that use it.

God bless.


my two cents;

I prefer the term mentally ill to “handicapped”. I think handicapped is out of date. In the media, those with mental illness are not portrayed well either. You have to be all out crazy killing people or perfectly sane. I don’t recall any even handed portrayls of depresson or bipolar or schizophrenia. They might show someone struggling with a physical disseae but mental illness-it’s like “keep those freaks away from me” at least that’s how it makes me feel.
I agree that the bit with the run away wheel chair is very tiresome.

I just thought of another: The Office. The guy who owns the office park building where Dunder-Mifflin Paper is located is in a wheelchair, and he is shown to be a successful, normal guy. He’s not a regular character, but he’s been on a few times.

I hope it helps to have some positive examples. :o

Thanks, all, for your interest and replies on the subject. I was glad to read about some positive depictions of the disabled in the media. I truly wasn’t aware of them and assumed what I saw over and over again was the only view the public got of people like myself.

As for the terminology, the word “handicapped” doesn’t offend me. I usually tell people, though, that I am disabled or that I use a wheelchair. The word that makes me uncomfortable is “crippled”. I don’t hear it much anymore, but when I do, it makes me cringe.

Something that really did bother me was when Sarah Palin was running for vp and the media kept referring to her son as a “Down Syndrome child”. I am not my disability and neither is he. I am an adult with a disability and he is a child with DS. Unfortunately our society still can’t seem to put people first. Thanks again for your comments!

Mystic Warrior -

Sorry, in my last post, I neglected to answer your question: do I see any positive changes in society regarding those w/ disabilities? I guess that we are shown in the media AT ALL is positive. Years ago, we’d have to stay in our houses. We were shameful and not to be seen in society.

I’m glad we have access to elevators and ramps in buildings in this country, but sometimes, these things are not well-planned (ie: ramps that lead to steps, or doorways that are far too narrow.) I believe architects who design wheelchair accessible spaces ought to do so FROM a wheelchair! We need width. We need a turning radius. We need ramps with gentle slopes, etc… I think people put up signs declaring a space is w/chair accessible, but this is only superficial. One needs to actually be in a w/chair to see if a given space can be easily accessed.

It’s been probably 15-20 years ago but a commercial for a major chain department store featured a customer in a wheelchair. I thought it was a sign of things to come but that was a long time ago and I haven’t seen similar examples since.

During the movie Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise’s character was shown losing control and sliding down a ramp in his wheelchair. In another scene, I believe he fell out or jumped out of his chair entirely.

I dont’ know that Forrest Gump is the best example. I don’t think they were going for a laugh when Lt. Dan fell out of his chair. I thought it was portraying the challenges that anyone would have adjusting to a disability. No one is a pro when they first use a wheelchair or prosthetic, kwim? Lt. Dan was also very angry at first but eventually had a sense of peace (I’m thinking of the scene where he jumped from the boat into the water). He figured out that he was very capable and could have a life.

Seinfeld and to a lesser degree Friends were the worst when it came to the portrayals of disabilities.

No problem, dotFaith. I appreciate your getting back to me. I’m very sorry to hear that you were seen as shameful in our society. My parents brought me up pretty good and they gave me a healthy viewpoint on people. They always encouraged me to be helpful to others and treat them with respect, no matter if they were disabled, black, white or whatever label society could put on people. I thank God for my childhood training and my parents.

In the buildings where I work, we do not have wheelchair ramps at all. A person who is disabled cannot enter. There are steps only. Of course, these buildings are warehouses and built 25 years ago. They weren’t designed to be shops. However, what if I had an employee who was disabled? They wouldn’t be able to work here. So, yes, we have a long way to go before things are what they should be.

Thank you and God bless.


At least the existence of those who are crippled is recognised - a lot of conditions can’t be detected by outward signs such as blindness, inability to walk, amputations, & so on. Artificial limbs, if not designe to resemble those they replace, stand out a mile - unlike certain forms of brain damage.

IMO, those who look for something to criticise will always manage to find it; it’s not as though the world owes the disabled - or anyone else - a living. Some disabled people make a very different complaint: they rail (& this is not too strong a word) against those they call “body fascists” - i.e., those who show them sympathy. If people are going to bit off the hand & the arm that feed them, other people are not going to have very much time for them. It’s very odd & very sad: some people are mortally offended by being shown courtesy & consideration. Maybe they would prefer to have the whatsit beaten out of them - then they would have something to mewl & puke about :rolleyes: I hope nobody in the USA behaves in that churlish & graceless fashion.

Kevin Girardi was a high school jock (Joan’s brother) with a college football future who tried to get the keys from his drunk buddy after a party. The buddy wouldn’t hand them over, and Kevin didn’t want to make a scene so he just got in the car as the passenger. The buddy wrecked the car which resulted in Kevin’s paralysis. The show ran for only two seasons and showed the family dealing with the paralysis from Kevin accepting the paralysis, forgiving the friend, learning to drive, playing basketball and dating.

Friday Night Lights also portrays a wheelchair ex-football player, Jason Street. The first episode shows how he was injured during the playoff game. He comes to term with the disability, not easily at all, gets into fist fights, finds love, fathers a child, and so far is heading to New York to start a new life there with his family. They are into season two now but it doesn’t look good for a season three. :frowning:

Both shows were excellently written, casted, filmed, and portrayed. :thumbsup:
If FNL doesn’t make another season it will be another gem lost. I highly recommend renting the DVDs and would be interested in what dotFaith’s thoughts are about how the characters were written, portrayed and acted in these shows. They seemed realistic to me.

I thought of another one. Professor X in the X-Men movies (and comics). He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s the most powerful of all the X-Men!

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