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Disability representation in pop culture

Denver Comic Con panel sheds light on the importance of representation in media

Kelly Leach has shoulder-length brown hair, wears a neck brace, at least one arm brace, and uses a wheelchair for mobility. She guest-speaks on a close friend’s podcast, 2/3s, and is currently in graduate school. For lack of a better cliche, she lives life to the fullest and doesn’t let her brittle bones stop her from doing anything. At Denver Comic Con this year, Leach spoke during one panel that stood out above the rest as it tackled the ever-present issue of fair representation in pop culture by highlighting disabled peoples in media. 

Leach cited the film Saved, which features a wheelchair-bound high schooler, as a major source of positive representation. “It was the first disabled character I saw who did not feel sorry for himself, who actually had a sense of humor about his disability. He went as a roller skate for Halloween!”

Leach does admit, however, that the film, which features a romance between an able-bodied and a disabled person, becomes problematic for having Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin portray the wheelchair-bound character. This casting leans into a bigger problem for films as a whole in Leach’s eyes: able-bodied actors playing disabled characters.

Fantastic Beasts actor Eddie Redmayne was shown as the prime example of able-bodied actor to disabled character connection. Redmayne received an Oscar for his portrayal of ALS-diagnosed Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and was nominated a second time for The Danish Girl, in which he played transgender pioneer Lili Elbe. Most of the panelists admitted to being fans of the actor himself, but found fault in his filmography and the awards it has brought.

“Finally, they’re starting to cast, sometimes, actual disabled people,” Leach said, as she took control of the entire audience from her fellow panelists. “Such as Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones, Walter White Junior on Breaking Bad, and the new show Speechless. As a sitcom, [Speechless] is not perfect, but it’s refreshing to see a show that fully tackles disability issues and where the most grounded character is the disabled character.”

The moderator, dressed as Ellen Ripley from Aliens, chimed in saying, “We’ve made great strides, but we’re coming from a position of having an able-bodied man play a blind superhero.” The point in case being Charlie Cox’s titular role in Marvel’s television adaptation of Daredevil. The show has remained popular since it began in 2015, but doesn’t allow for true representations of characters, as played by actors with disabilities.

However, not all is wrong. A notable step forward for disabled visibility comes with the film A Quiet Place. In the film, a family must survive in a place where other-worldly creatures prey on them using sound. The eldest child of the family, Regan, is deaf and uses this to her advantage throughout the thriller. Millicent Simmons, the actress who plays the daughter, is deaf in real life and her role has brought much-needed attention to the deaf community. She has used her fame and platform tied to the film to advocate for disabled people, and has even appeared in other films such as Wonderstruck, where she again plays a deaf character.

Though it was not brought up at the panel, seeing as Millicent Simmons have never really played anything close to a superhero, it is safe to assume this is the sort of representation the panel longs for. Leach herself said it best: “When we get to the point where there isn’t just a token disabled person and they don’t hate themselves [for being disabled] and they’re actually played by someone with a disability, then we’ll be okay.”

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