Janina Strauss; Julia Schoorlemmer; Paulina Mund; Maxime Kuipers; and Aida Niskala

The estimated number of individuals being affected by some form of (dis)ability is around one billion, covering 15 percent of the world population according to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020). The depiction and representation of people with (dis)abilities in popular culture affects the way we see and understand each other. As international educators, it’s important to be aware of the ways in which our understandings of (dis)ability is influenced by popular culture and to think critically about how those representations might affect people who are being represented.

Note: Throughout the writing of the Representation of Disabilities in Popular Culture we maintained a strong focus on the correct use of wording and terminology. All parts have been written with the utmost attention to be as objective and inclusive as possible, however there is no guarantee that the language and images being used do not come across as potentially triggering and offensive. Certain terminology is used to showcase how perceptions on disabilities evolve over time.



Popular Culture

Why Representation Matters

As with many other aspects of social identity, i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, etc. the way that disability is represented is important. Some progress has been made towards equity in terms of representation (who is represented and how).

One example of this is the Disney movie, Zootopia, which addressed the topics of racism, discrimination, bullying, police brutality and gender equality. This is a small step towards more equitable and diverse representations in popular culture as children are increasingly influenced by popular culture from a very early age, though social media and Disney and Pixar movies and shows (Hayday, 2019). Popular culture shapes our thoughts and opinions more than ever before.

Critical thinking and media literacy are often not taught in school or talked about at home, and often (young) people do not question the media they watch, listen to and read. Furthermore, through social media, inaccurate or incomplete representation spreads quicker than ever on the internet, through memes, videos and articles, as one no longer must state the source of their claims, but one tends to just believe what they read online.

Representation influences our views and perceptions of ourselves and of others. More accurate, diverse and equitable portrayals might help to dissolve the stigma around what it means to have a disability. “Popular culture has been problematic in their portrayal of people with disabilities beyond fictional characters in movies” (McDevitt, 2020). McDevitt argues that filmmakers casting white or cisgender actors to portray characters of color, or able-bodied actors to represent people with disabilities is just one of the problems relating to representation. Furthermore, being represented in popular culture gives us a feeling of belonging and this is a crucial element of an inclusive society.



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by Janina Strauss; Julia Schoorlemmer; Paulina Mund; Maxime Kuipers; and Aida Niskala is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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