The rise in disability visibility on a global scale is something to be celebrated, but that’s not to say there isn’t still a long way to go. Campaigns around the world are going the extra mile, ensuring disabled people get the representation they deserve.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation – a USA-based charity that provides support to people who have a spinal cord injury, resulting in paralysis – created the aptly named See Us campaign.
Launched to demand increased disability representation in everyday life, See Us urges people to listen to the voices of disabled people, see the achievements of individuals, to combat the stigma surrounding disability.
What began as a local movement is beginning to inspire similar campaigns around the world, demanding better visibility and representation for disabled people in all aspects of public life, including politics and the media.
There have long been calls for better access, to enable disabled people to get more involved in the world of politics. With 20 per cent of the population being disabled, and less than one per cent of the MPs representing the disabled population, much more needs to be done.
Jamie Szymkowiak is a political and disability activist, who co-founded the Scottish based One in Five campaign in 2015. Referencing the fact that one in five people in Scotland are disabled, the campaign aims to improve disabled participation and representation in politics.
The group campaigned for the Scottish government to create a fund dedicated to enabling disabled people to partake in politics and stand for election: this created the Access to Elected Office Fund.
“It starts very early on at a grassroots level,” Jamie explains. “It’s about governments encouraging and empowering disabled people to be active and accepting that all levels of activism are valuable – whether that’s stuffing envelopes or doing tele-canvassing, because getting involved at a grassroots level is what increases your confidence.”
In terms of visibility, the media is at the forefront, deciding what viewers get to see in films, television, music and more. The media is a powerful force in society, and has huge influence over public opinion and perception. It is vital then, that the media is accurate when portraying disabled characters in film and television.
Recent years have seen leaps andbounds forward in terms of disability visibility in the media. In March 2018, actress Rachel Shenton accepted the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for her film The Silent Child. Featuring deaf actress, Maisie Sly, as the main character, the movie showed the realities of life for a deaf child. Rachel also communicated her acceptance speech in British Sign Language (BSL).
At the National Television Awards in January, James Moore won the Best Newcomer award, for his portrayal of Ryan Stocks in Emmerdale. He used his acceptance speech to talk about the importance of the inclusion of disabled actors in TV, and take the industry to task over what they can do to improve representation.
And in June this year, Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to be nominated for, and win, a Tony award.
“When you see someone who’s like you on TV, it makes you feel accepted and I don’t think you can disregard the importance or significance of that feeling,” explains Jamie. “To be included in society makes people feel confident, that they’re accepted and it’s okay to be different.”
However, there have also been setbacks along the way. When Ali Stroker won her Tony award, there had been no ramp built for her to access the stage and accept her award. Luckily, she was still backstage after performing immediately before her success was announced. She was the only cast member of Oklahoma! not on stage to accept the Best Revival of a Musical award, due to the lack of a ramp.
In January, actor Bryan Cranston was criticised for defending his decision to play a wheelchair user in The Upside. The controversy raised questions about whether non-disabled actors should ever play disabled characters, and started a wider debate about the erasure of minority groups in mainstream media.
These serve as a reminder that while visibility in the media has come a long way, there is always more that can be done and we need to keep pushing.
Alice Wong is also involved in disability activism and is the founder
of the Disability Visibility Project: an online community that aims to promote disability in the media and culture.
“Follow, listen, and believe disabled people,” Alice urges. “Disabled people have important perspectives that are missing in mainstream media. For example, when the UK passed a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, disabled people were speaking out about how it would impact them.
“Seek disabled people for every level in your organization, including interns, reporters, editors, and producers. The talent is out there.”
Beyond the media and politics, there’s plenty we can all do to be more mindful of disability in everyday life.
“Take a look around and you’ll find disability everywhere,” continues Alice. “All political issues are disability issues. There are disabled people in every single diverse community.
“Uplift stories where disabled people are telling their own stories rather
than other people telling them on their behalf. Support the work of disabled writers, poets, and artists by attending their performances, buying their books, or clicking on their links.”
Though there is still, admittedly, a long way to go, the progress made in recent years – in politics, the media, and public life – point to a shift in the way disabilities are perceived in society.
“When you find allies and you increase your social circles, it makes you feel like you’re not alone,” Jamie urges. “When you realise you’re not alone, together you’re able to tackle things, make opportunities for yourself and others.”