How is cerebral palsy stereotyped or under-represented on screen? — Scope | Disability forum
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How is cerebral palsy stereotyped or under-represented on screen?

Ross_Alumni Scope alumni Posts: 7,652 Disability Gamechanger

Thank you to Daniel Kay for contributing this guest blog to the community, I hope you all enjoy it :) 

How is cerebral palsy stereotyped or under-represented on screen??

Media has undergone a seismic transition in a very short period of time in terms of content and quality.

With the advent and rise of Netflix worldwide, there have been greater opportunities for all actors out there.

However, only three percent of these actors who are working in this industry, are disabled.

Despite a plethora of films being made every year, along with the many shows being produced on streaming platforms and TV, there is a paucity of quality in content being made for the minority of this world; Cerebral Palsy and disabled people in general. 

Even with the restriction in content, and the opportunity for Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities, people still fail to understand and do not get into the depth of the theme and its sensitivity. Often, there's a inaccurate portrayal in the mainstream media that fails to create awareness about the condition and showcase the reality.

Daniel sat in his front room with a hat on smiling to the camera

Portrayal in Media:

The cliches  and the stigma attached to disability is extremely common and has a long history in both TV and films. the world is moving towards realistic portrayals, however we have still not completely removed stereotypes. They aren't accurate and fail to give us an insight into people's real lives, what it is like tackling Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities.

Negative portrayal

Let's talk about the negative portrayal of Cerebral Palsy that has been reinforced by the media and is highly incorrect on various grounds. Here's a list of stigmas that the media has promoted through films and TV:

  • Non-disabled people playing the roles of disabled people

The first and foremost issue is under-representation and limited opportunities for people with Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities. When subjects, such as disabilities, are portrayed in the media and their roles are given to abled actors, the limited chances are often minimized to zero.

Maysoon Zayidi, a Muslim-American comedian and actress with CerebralPpalsy, once recalled in her TED talk how a director turned her down for an audition for a character with cerebral palsy in favour of a non-disabled actor. When asked, the director said that they didn't think she could perform the role according to the script's requirements.

Inside Im Dancing, a Hollywood movie of 2004, touched upon Cerebral palsy. However, once again, the role was performed by a non-disabled actor who wasn’t able to do justice to cerebral palsy. The film was criticised particularly in this regard.

  • Victimisation

Another stereotype associated with our mainstream media, is to portray Cerebral Palsy and other disabled people as victims or show that they lead a depressed life. This promotes a wrong message that people with Cerebral Palsy require charity, sympathy or pity. 

However, what they truly require is genuine compassion and acceptance in society and the media. Apart from this, showing them as unhappy and depressed individuals is also wrong, since they lead normal lives and are content with their special needs and status in society. 

  • Inspirational models

A common perception that the media has promoted for a long time now, is that the lives of the people suffering from cerebral palsy are heroes or are the inspiration for non-disabled people. It focuses more on inspiring the world with their special talents or abilities rather than highlighting their life journey. It's important to note that they are not caricatures or role models, but normal people.  

Positive portrayal

There has been a positive and realistic portrayal of real-life people with Cerebral Palsy as well.

My Left Foot, a movie inspired by the life of Christy Brown, has done a fair job in realistically portraying Christy's life. It has sympathetic elements and inspirational elements. However, it doesn't mean to inspire or gain sympathy for cerebral palsy. It is based on Christy Brown's journey and focuses more on him than the surroundings and how he impacted the lives of the people around him.  

Many speakers and comedians with Cerebral Palsy have come out, normalising the condition and breaking all stereotypes, by creating awareness about the condition and their journey with humour and grit instead of sympathy or inspirational talks.

The prominent names include Maysoon Zaid, Josh Blue and RJ Mitte, who are all advocates of Cerebral Palsy and are happy in their spaces; doing well in their career and social life.

Final word

It is important to create awareness about Cerebral Palsy and shun the stigmas and the stereotypes associated with it.

The media needs to take charge of exhibiting a positive image of people with Cerebral Palsy. There's also a growing need to create more content related to the condition and other disabilities, without type-casting or stigmatising the issues.

It's essential to create equal opportunities for people who have Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities in TV and movies, so that the real side of the picture is visible to the audience.

Over to you:

  • What do you think about Daniel's observations of how people with cerebral palsy are represented in media?
  • Do you recognise any of the tropes he mentions - the inspiration porn and victimisation of disabled groups?
  • Can you think of any other positive representations not mentioned?
Let us know in the comments below!
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  • daz2
    daz2 Community member, CP Network, Scope Member Posts: 74 Pioneering
    edited May 2021
    Hmm, I'd disagree about My Left Foot as a positive film. The film failed to show how his wife beat him physically repeatedly & abused him mentally. When it comes to media don't forget the Villan model (Sex Education), Super Crip model (Breaking Bad) Burden Model, (My Left Foot, again) Better Off Dead Model, Million Dollar Baby, (Not CP, but you get the picture). I was amazed a couple of months ago when Russell T Davies was being interviewed about casting gay actors in It's a  Sin when he said that you wouldn't hire an non-disabled actor to play a disabled character. Sorry if it sounds like I'm moaning. I did an MA in Disability Studies and my dissertation was on the Oscars & Disability. One of the films I researched and wrote about was My Left Foot. 

    I also wrote this about Insperation Porn

  • JessicaB
    JessicaB Community member Posts: 1 Listener
    Really useful discussion. Speaking as family member of person with cerebral palsy (mum) image in media is absolutely so vital to change  - which seems very slow in coming.
  • forgoodnesssake
    forgoodnesssake Community member Posts: 486 Pioneering
    edited May 2021
    Interesting thread.  I am parent to a young adult with CP and on one of the forums I'm on there was recently a thread about good films about disability and the list people put up was long and a few of the same films kept popping up: "Inside I'm dancing" (urghh) "The Upside" a few others,and even people raving about "Me Before You" !!  I diplomatically just pointed out that most of the films mentioned did not have disabled actors in them...and was roundly shot down by quite a few people...saying it was quite irrelevant etc etc.  One or two other posters agreed with me but It was very disheartening to see so many who just couldn't see the problem or put it down to "political correctness" or whatever.
    I could have prolonged the discussion by asking if they though the same way about actors blacking up but decided that on balance it was better to leave it, as it was clear that at least some of the posters seemed very very angry about more than just that issue!
  • Anni
    Anni Community member Posts: 19 Courageous
    I would disagree with My Left Foot. It may portray CP realistically, but as Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t have CP it surely fits into Daniel Kay’s first category of negative portrayals. 
    I would like to see portrayals of people with CP with chronic pain. This is a huge thing for many people with CP, and realistic portrayals i.e. not shying away from how difficult it is to cope with would raise awareness.
    Possibly the most annoying script was the US series Heroes. Oh, the irony of a character with CP calling another character a ‘spaz’!


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