Defining Physical Disabilities

An individual can considered to have a physically disability when they are constrained in their ability to perform physical activities independently. It is can be a long or short term impairment that has significant effects on mobility, stamina or dexterity (Berg, 2020).

Categories of Physical Disabilities
Musculo-skeletal Neuromuscular
  • Loss or Deformity of Limbs
  • Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as Brittle Bone Disease
  • Muscular Dystrophy, progressive muscle weakness and a decreasing muscle mass
  • Cerebral Palsy, a group of non-progressive disorders, brain damage leads to impairment of dexterity
  • Spina Bifida, not properly developed spinal cord in the womb leading to a gap in the spine
  • Poliomyelitis, virus disease caused by polio resulting in weakness in both legs
  • Stroke
  • Head Injury
  • Spinal Cord Injury, damage to the spinal cord which can result in paraplegia

People with physical disabilities may develop mental health issues, such as depression as a result of the environmental and social barriers they experience. (Noh et al., 2016). Research shows that people with physical disabilities are three times as likely to develop symptoms linked to depression then people who are not diagnosed with a disability.

Perception and Representation

Perception isn’t just about what we see but also incorporates how we interpret and remember what we see. According to communication theories, the act of perception occurs in three stages:

Selecting: Taking in information through the senses but not all of it (selective attention).

Organizing: Sorting and categorizing the information.

Interpreting: This (often unconscious) process is how we assign meaning to information (Jones, 2013). New information builds upon our preexisting, or stored knowledge and ideas to contribute to our forming of opinions, and to contribute to more in-depth meaning making.

How we perceive new information (ideas about people, places, etc.) is influenced by our pre-conceptions, which are informed by media, education, culture(s), values, beliefs, past experiences, and our needs/motivation, among other things. Beloucif et al., 2017).

Perceptions and images of disabilities are often negative and deficit-oriented. (Alves et al., 2013). People with disabilities are often perceived of and treated like helpless victims who need fixing. As educators and global citizens, it’s important  that we understand the connections between the representations of people with physical disabilities  and different society’s perceptions of people with disabilities.

Some Positive Representations

When thinking of the representation of physical disabilities on a global scale, the Paralympics might jump to mind. It is one of the greatest sporting events in history. The roots of the Paralympics lay in 1948 where British World War II veterans with spinal injuries united to compete in sports. Years later the concept of the Paralympics changed, from 1960 onwards the event was not only for war veterans (“IPC | International Paralympic Committee Sports & News”, 2020). Since 2000, there is more popular culture coverage on the Paralympics which spreads awareness of and incorporates many positive representations of physical disabilities.

Disney provides multiple examples of representing characters with Musculo-skeletal disabilities, including the 101 Dalmatians series and the movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Both present a character that fits into this category. The character Tripod is introduced in 101 Dalmatians (1997): The Series, his name explains his disability; instead of four paws, he has three. The cause of the missing limb has never been explained. He is characterised as an athletic and hard-working puppy. Tripod is presented positively; his disability does not limit him in actions and adventures, and viewed as very brave (“Tripod”, n.d.)

The well-known character Nemo (2003) is represented with a disability that results from an injury as a result of a crack in the egg; this resulted in a less developed right fin. Nemo’s dad, Marlin, views Nemo’s disability as being dangerous for him (Nemo) and his surroundings, which Nemo strongly disagrees with. Throughout the movie and sequel, Nemo’s character develops, and he becomes a strong leader who isn’t afraid of taking responsibility and taking risks. Nemo turns his father’s deficit perspective (and maybe the perspective of the children watching the movie) into an asset-based perspective.

Both representations by Disney, show that the disability does not have to be perceived with a deficit mindset and/or as a negative quality. Since the characters are both animals, children may not make a connection to the people with these types of disabilities, nevertheless, using Disney to introduce or normalise this type of disability can be a great way to educate students.

Cerebral Palsy is represented in popular media via a series called Special (2019). The series covers the struggles that accompany this disability and the feeling of embarrassment about being physically impaired through the eyes of the main character (Ellis, 2019).

The comic book, Karmzah, attempts to educate primary students more about cerebral palsy, written by Farida Bedwei. Karmzah lives with cerebral palsy but ensures that the disability won’t stop her form battling the villains in her country. Karmzah addresses and empowers the character with the disability and shows the strength girls have. She is also Black and her character is a positive representation on many levels (Awadzi, 2018). The goal of this comic is not to normalise the disability but to make those with cerebral palsy feel like superheroes.

Representations of Spina Bifida, a birth defect where a baby’s neural tube does not develop or close properly, consist mostly of news stories, images and videos. The true story of 10-year-old Colton Robinson, for example, is inspiring for all viewers and readers. During one of his many hospital visits he was being photographed to his greatest joy, which led to his mom contacting agencies fighting for greater representation of disabilities. Since then, Colton modelled for Target, Toys R Us, and Tommy Hilfiger and was the first child ever to model during the New York Fashion week in a wheelchair (Spina Bifida Association, 2020).

The documentary “Crip Camp”, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, available on Netflix. This documentary tells the story of a summer camp for (mainly physically) disabled teenagers and adults which resulted in civil rights movements focussing on disability rights in the 1960s and 1970s (Kassabian, 2020). The pressure this movement put on the government contributed to passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Some Negative Representations

In a more recent example of a negative representation, The Witches (2020) has been criticized due to the negative representation of disability. In the movie, all of the witches are characterised by having just three, elongated fingers on each hand, contributing to the representation of the witches as ‘evil’.  This representation led to the online movement #NotAWitch where people with limb differences speak up about how their difference does not make them evil; fighting the representation of limb differences as done in The Witches (Gillespie, 2020).

Another Musculo-skeletal disability, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, better known as Brittle Bone Disease, is portrayed in the movie Unbreakable (2000) and its sequel Glass (2019). The main character of the movie goes by the name Mr. Glass due to his condition, Type 1 Osteogenesis Imperfecta. He is a global terrorist, who, due to his condition he is bound to a wheel-chair. Both movies show the limitations of the disability on the character’s daily life but also that the character is still able to live a full life (Tallerico, 2019). The movies Unbreakable and Glass seem to be the only popular representations of Osteogenesis Imperfecta. If this is the only source of information used to gain knowledge on this disability, the image created only covers the surface of the struggles and provides little medical information.

Muscular Dystrophy refers to a group of multiple muscle diseases that weaken and break down the muscles in the body over time. Many in disability communities have been praising the movie, The Fundamentals of Caring (2016), for the way it represents people with Muscular Dystrophy, however, there has been criticism about the choice of actor for the lead role, who does not have Muscular Dystrophy. Producers claimed that this decision was made because they couldn’t find someone with Muscular Dystrophy to play the role (Evans, n.d.). This issue is a common one in discussions about representation and equity.

Spinal Cord injuries can lead to paralysis and have been covered in multiple feature films, including the French movie Intouchable/The Intouchables (2011), the story of Phillipe, who is a wealthy quadriplegic and the man, Driss, who takes care of him. (Ebert, 2012). Next to addressing the paralysis, the movie also shows the lack of knowledge and understanding about spinal cord injuries and disabilities in society, which would make this a positive representation, except that the movie includes some racial stereotyping relating to Driss’s character.

Another movie representing paralysis is Me Before You (2016). It displays the story of Will, a successful, adventure seeking person who became physically disabled through an accident resulting in him being paralysed. His new caretaker, Louisa, does the best she can trying to change Will’s mind from his wish to commit assisted suicide. Me Before You has received some criticism, again because the main characterr does not have a spinal injury himself. Critics would have preferred this character being displayed by someone that is a quadriplegic themselves. Next to that, the movie shows Will’s desire of committing suicide due to the limitations of his disability. Many say that the message send by this does not reflect the value of someone living with a disability (Murray, 2016).

The Undateables  follows individuals living with challenging conditions, which widely vary from mental disabilities/disorders to physical disabilities to genetic conditions and much more, in their attempts of finding love (Ryan, 2012). The characters in this show are presented somewhat stereotypical, requiring critical thinking whenever this source is used for educational purposes. This is the critic that appears with almost all representations of physical disabilities in media, often stereotyped and designed from a perception of abled bodied for those who are abled. Many steps towards inclusive and accurate representation still need to be taken.

Effects of Misrepresentations

It’s clear that the representation of people with physical disabilities in popular culture is limited in terms of the numbers of films and shows with characters with disabilities, in terms of asset-based, non-stereotypical portrayals, and in terms of hiring actors living with disabilities.

For our societies to be more inclusive, we need to see more positive representations of disabilities in education, society and popular culture/media (Amoroso, 2020). Often disabled individuals are left out of conversations about prejudice and bigotry, with little or no opportunity to tell their own stories, or critique the media that purports to represent them.

This exclusion already shows up in preschool and primary school, as disabled students often face barriers in participating in and contributing to school activities. As educators, we need to be more aware of and attentive to the representations of physical disabilities in our classroom environment and teaching.

When analysing the effects of the representation of disabilities in society, it’s clear that there is a connection between exclusion in popular culture and exclusion in our workplaces and communities. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, report that only small portions of both physically and mentally disabled individuals are employed (U.S. Department of Labor, 2019).

Governments around the world should empower employers to hire those with physical disabilities. Connecting this to popular culture and the representation of disabilities in movies and series, more attention should be paid to the number of disabled roles in front of, and behind the camera.

Around one in six individuals worldwide live with some type of disability (WHO, 2020). One aim for the film industry could be that this ratio is also represented on screen. This would then lead to more roles being played by those living with disabilities. By doing so the stigma and stereotypes are not as likely to appear, which would help make our culture(s) more inclusive.


Questions for Further Thinking

Discuss or write your answers to the following questions:

  1. In what ways might the representation of physical disabilities effect/contribute to your personal perception?
  2. How can someone that is disabled, be affected by the non- or misrepresentation of disabilities in popular culture?
  3. Use this link to read the Twitter tread by Cindy Baldwin, to read more about her perception on the representation of disabilities in popular culture? How can we incorporate and apply these understandings to our teaching and learning?
  4. Create your own list of positive representations of people with physical disabilities? What criteria did you use to make your list? Which films, podcast, shows, etc might you use in the classroom?




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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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