Stories help us understand our history, ourselves and each other. They not only preserve culture, but shape our conception of the world. They exercise our imaginations and encourage us to see life through different perspectives than our own. That’s why diversity in fiction and media is so important! Diversity encourages us to accept others who aren’t like us and helps us to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories.
If they’re included at all, disabled characters are portrayed as burdens, ugly, unacceptable (until they’re cured), or inspirations—put up on a pedestal to be admired because they’re “brave” for simply existing. These tropes contribute to stigmas and misunderstandings about a variety of conditions. But there’s also hope as awareness spreads, disabled creators produce their own content, and sensitivity readers become more commonplace.
To kick off my blog posts for GeekDis, a month-long discussion of disability representation in pop culture, I’ve asked my fellow disabled people (including those with chronic illnesses and who are neurodiverse), to note how we’ve reacted to seeing our conditions represented in TV shows and movies. Here’s what we have to say.
1. Type 1 Diabetes in Cooties
I don’t see my disability represented that often in the media, but it came up in Cooties, a horror comedy featuring Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, and Rainn Wilson. Their characters are working at an elementary school when the students suddenly become infected with a virus, which turns them into smart zombies who want to kill the adults. One kid, Calvin, manages to escape being turned on the playground because he was studying in the library. About half way through the movie, he becomes unresponsive, and the teachers mention he has diabetes and needs sugar. Of course, they’re all trapped in the auditorium at this point, and no one is carrying any carbs. They have to make it to the teacher’s lounge to get him some candy from the vending machine and fetch car keys for a getaway.
Diabetes causes unexpected lows that you’re not prepared to manage. All of the running around and fear definitely would be a contributing factor to a surprise low, and I could see Calvin being scared to speak up because all of the adults are yelling a lot. And eventually they presumably give him the carbs (though they never show this resolving) and all make their escape. But they don’t worry about getting his insulin (kids aren’t trusted to give themselves their own shots at school—in most schools it has to be administered by the nurse), and he will die in 3–4 days without it. In the movie, diabetes comes up as a temporary nuisance that can be fixed with a candy bar. But in real life, it’s a balance that takes a lot of work to determine how much insulin vs. how much food vs. how much exercise vs. time of day vs. if you’re sick and so many other considerations that aren’t ever brought up. It’s not a quick, one-time fix; it’s a daily grind. I didn’t think they did a bad job showing diabetes in the film, though if he was that low, they really needed to get him carbs a lot sooner.
—Megan Tolentino, podcaster, developer | Twitter
2. Autism in Bones and Criminal Minds
I grew up struggling with the world. Sounds, textures, social rules that everyone but me seemed to know. To everyone else, I was just socially anxious and a little “weird.” No one ever suspected autism. Not even me, for a long time. I just learned to adapt to a world that wasn’t built for people like me, and made the most of a difficult situation. I masked, a.k.a. “hid,” all of my autistic traits, and made it through social situations by mimicking people and characters. It was exhausting.
Last year, after I moved, I started watching Bones. I love crime shows, forensics, all of that, so I figured it would be a fun watch. I didn’t expect it to make my chest ache and for me to cry several times throughout because, for the first time, I saw someone like me. I still didn’t know I was autistic at this point, but I was suspecting. And Temperance Brennan is the character that made me realize that I was. I had never seen a character on screen like me—one who was confused by social rules, who didn’t understand jokes or metaphors, and who was frequently in situations made difficult by not understanding the world. I had never seen a character like that who was loved, and supported, and not put down or treated terribly because of this.
Seeing an autistic character on screen changed my life. And then it happened again with Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds. With his little tics, stimming, intense “weird” special interests. I was already diagnosed autistic at this point, but it was still good to see and still made my heart ache at times because of how much of myself I found in these characters. It made me more comfortable and confident about my own diagnosis once I had it, let me mask less, and let myself be authentically me and autistic for the first time since being diagnosed at 19. No more hiding stims, or being ashamed of my intense interests, or the way the world doesn’t make sense. Seeing my disability represented in the media was so important to me, and it’s why we need all of the good disability rep we can get. It can change lives—it definitely changed mine.
3. Amputee in How to Train Your Dragon
One armed man here. Until Gobber from How to Train Your Dragon, I don’t think I saw any positive representation. I relate to Gobber and Hiccup because I have been blacksmithing and engineering my whole life. Then they make the bad guy one-armed—this annoys me but I can relate to the anger at society and desire to take over the world… Hahaha.
4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome in The Office
I had never seen IBS, a debilitating and painful illness, mentioned in the media until I watched the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office. Michael Scott, the Regional Manager of the paper company Dunder Mifflin and one of the show’s main characters, calls a salesman, Andy, into his office to talk about why Andy left a note about having a “boo-boo tummy.” Andy replies, “Would you rather me say, ‘Hey guys, my irritable bowel syndrome is flaring up. Crazy diarrhea happening right now.’ ‘Cause things could get real adult REAL fast!” This made me cringe.
It makes sense that The Office would mention IBS, because it’s a “socially unacceptable” illness due to the involvement of bowels and pooping, and The Office delights in awkward topics. But Andy’s irritable bowel is never mentioned again after this scene. Not once. It was brought up as a joke with no hint of how debilitating this condition can be (I have literally passed out on the toilet from the pain), and Andy lives a perfectly normal, healthy life throughout the rest of the show. I can’t help making parallels to the general public attitude towards IBS and similar conditions, and I wish my illness wasn’t dismissed so easily. I doubt I will see it treated respectfully in a book or a movie because it’s too “gross,” but I wonder how many people would benefit if it was.
5. Asperger’s Syndrome in Community
Closest to an accurate portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome is Abed from Community. And I think great. It shows that you can have friends, a special interest, and have character as someone with autism.
6. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Wheelchair Usage in Glee
Although I had both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the disorder that caused my wheelchair use (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a.k.a. EDS), I was unaware of both when I watched Glee as a teenager. At the time, the show was highly praised for its representation and clever plots, and, though I can’t comment on everything wrong with the show in a few paragraphs, I’ll try to address two of the things that really affect me as an adult.
First: OCD. On Glee, Emma Pillsbury is said to have the disorder, but it’s treated like a joke, with people laughing at her obsessions and compulsions, or dismissing them outright as simple quirks. As damaging as this is in and of itself, the disorder also isn’t portrayed accurately at all. Mainstream media paints OCD as a ‘clean freak’ disorder, when it’s so much more. Yes, compulsive cleaning can occur, but the root of OCD is the obsessions. The compulsions are more of the brain’s attempt to find peace from the obsessions, if only temporarily. Due to this misrepresentation, a lot of people do not see OCD as a serious condition, nor do they suspect they might be suffering from it. If I had continued to base my OCD on media representation alone, I never would’ve believed my diagnosis. I mean, I’m not even a particularly tidy person.
Second: the wheelchair use. Oh, the wheelchair use. One of the show’s main characters, Artie, uses a wheelchair, and is said to be paralyzed from the waist down (but, viewers are assured, his penis still works). Although this isn’t impossible, it’s pretty rare for wheelchair users to have no mobility below the waist at all. Artie was also played by an able-bodied actor, and according to the podcast Recovering Gleeks, in the episode called “Wheels,” which was meant to be the club showing support for Artie by performing in wheelchairs, the cast themselves would play in them behind the scenes, using them to cut in line for sympathy and such. The most infuriating thing, though, is when another character, Quinn, has to use a wheelchair due to injuries sustained in a car crash. She then is miraculously healed and able to walk again thanks to… a few physical therapy sessions with another student(???).
Basically, if the only representation of people like me I had were those characters, I think I’d be quite a bit more depressed about becoming disabled.
—Gem Schley, a.k.a. DisabledandFab, general creative presence and language enthusiast
7. Borderline Personality Disorder in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
I didn’t encounter a piece of media with a protagonist whose emotional world made complete sense to me until I watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Throughout the show, Rebecca Bunch (portrayed by co-creator Rachel Bloom) struggles with feelings of obsession and abandonment. While she initially resists getting mental health treatment, she is eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and gains insight into how to manage her emotions in a healthy way.
This show was really healing for me to watch because it sympathetically portrays the unhealthy behaviors of someone with untreated borderline. Instead of writing off Rebecca as a stereotypical crazy ex-girlfriend, the show reveals the pain and trauma that lead her to make the decisions she does. The writers clearly understand that Rebecca is a bigger threat to herself than she is to anybody else, and when she harms others, she faces consequences and makes amends for her actions. The world of the show neither condemns Rebecca for being neurodivergent nor does it condescend to her by sanctioning all of her decisions. Instead Rebecca is treated like a human being who understands the difference between right and wrong but sometimes acts unreasonably in response to her emotions like all people do.
8. Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva in Horror Films
My disability, Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), has largely been used negatively in horror media. The TV series and a Ridley Scott film, bar one, gave misinformation and glaring omissions, sensationalised truths, and myths. This is ableist and dangerous as it’s teaching the audience wrong information about my genetic disability including inappropriate nicknames, treatments, diagnosis, and quality of life.
BBC Casualty and the rumored Netflix adaption of Rattle were the worst. Bones was the best in accuracy and respectful. However, the problem remains in all of them that FOP is showcased as a horrifying, scary disease to be feared and mocked as the boogeyman of disability in nightmares.
9. Chronic Illness and Headaches in Grey’s Anatomy and New Amsterdam
I appreciated that Grey’s touched on the feeling of being left behind when dealing with an illness, while everyone else keeps on living, and not being able to realize the dreams you were working toward. New Amsterdam took it a step further when Dr. Iggy From said, “When Covid hit and everyone was stuck in their house hating it, that must’ve been really weird for you cuz suddenly everyone kinda knew what it was like to be you.” Had me like “Yes, they get it!” I really wish one or both of them would cover “Post CoViD-19 Syndrome” pre-CoViD – I.E. the #MillionsMissing #MyalgicE patients with the same illness who’ve been ignored for decades!
But of course these shows aren’t perfect. I was so disappointed by a recent Grey’s Anatomy episode that portrayed a patient who was having headaches after heart surgery. After a week of tests, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her, so one suggested maybe she was faking. Instead of calling him out, the other doctor agrees and they confront the patient. Rather than show how so many of us are wrongly disbelieved by our doctors, they have the patient admit she was faking, because she found her life too boring and lonely and wasn’t ready to leave the hospital. The doctors give her a heart-warming pep talk and leave us feeling good that the situation was resolved. In reality, perpetrating this narrative is incredibly harmful. I really hope they do better going forward!
10. ADHD in Juno and Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Representation can be a hit or miss. For example, I really liked the representation in Juno. Juno has ADHD, and you can tell once you know, but she’s a normal human. I think Jake from Brooklyn Nine-Nine is okay too. Most characters are seen as crazy, all over the place, wacky, goofy, interrupting spaz’s. Realistically, we zone out all the time, we get overwhelmed easily, we’re forgetful, and yes, it is hard for us to focus.
11. Chronic Pain in House
While it’s not the same disability or diagnosis, I found a lot of indirect support for discussing my experience with chronic pain from watching House. Similarly to House himself, I walk with a significant limp (though mine is due to nerve pain instead of muscle death), and many physically abled family and friends don’t entirely understand why I talk a lot about my disability.
When I was watching the show while it was on, I was still coming to terms with my chronic pain and it wasn’t that severe yet. But as I would rewatch odd episodes after the show ended, I noticed that I could relate more and more to House’s characterization—especially when he’s talking about his pain to other people. Even if it’s not the same cause, the fact that people still watched House manage his pain on television for eight years is something that sticks with me as someone who constantly has to explain why I can’t just do things like most people my age. House might be a jerk to most everyone he meets, but his experience to manage (and occasionally try to eliminate) his pain is one that comes off very authentic to me, given my physical mobility is similar to his character’s.
12. Tourette Syndrome in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo
One of the most difficult things about Tourette syndrome (TS) is how the media portrays it! All the portrayals I’ve seen include the person shouting obscenities and inappropriate phrases. For example, in Deuce Bigalow, Ruth is afraid of socializing because she has uncontrollable outbursts and shouts swear words. Deuce takes her to a baseball game, in which her shouting is more socially “appropriate,” but her condition is portrayed for comedic effect.
When I tell people I have Tourette syndrome, they are shocked because I do not do those things. About 10% of the population with TS does have those types of uncontrollable outbursts, called coprolalia, and they are often bullied and misunderstood (many people don’t believe kids’ tics are uncontrollable, and that they’re “just doing it for attention” or are “just bad,” and adults’ tics can be isolating), but they are not as common as the media would like us to believe. But boy does it make AMAZING joke fodder right? SOOO funny. *sarcasm*
Movies need to stop using TS as their joke fodder. Period. It is a medical condition that causes a lot of physical, mental, and emotional trauma (and suicide!).
13. Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome in Grey’s Anatomy
My daughter saw an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that showed a patient with MALS. She said “Mom, this sounds just like you!” I brought it up to my doctor, got tested and was diagnosed yesterday!
14. Type One Diabetes in Under the Dome
My all-time favorite depiction of type one diabetes (for being hilarious, not for accuracy) was on Under The Dome. They had the obligatory type one diabetic character that they have in any disaster movie, who is there for the sole purpose of dying tragically when her insulin runs out (what a fun trope! 🙄). BUT on this show, her daughter manages to find a supply of insulin vials… So she opens the fridge, and you see, like, 14 vials. I’m like, oh great, that’s a solid 3-4 month supply depending on her personal needs, maybe more if she can ration. The daughter blanches and says, “But this is only enough for 2 weeks!” I say, “WHAT?!?” out loud, and then it occurs to me from other lines they have said that they think diabetics take an entire vial of insulin, one time a day 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂 Uhhhhhhhhh….. nope.
15. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Wheelchair Use in Star Trek: Deep Space 9
I had never seen a representation of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and being a wheelchair user that I related to until I saw Melora in Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Melora is from a planet with a much lower level of gravity than what most lifeforms in the Star Trek universe experience, so she uses a power wheelchair and a complex system of braces to function while serving in Star Fleet. Although she isn’t canonically a zebra, her struggle with too much gravity closely matches how Ehlers-Danlos feels for me, like I’m being pulled apart.
Melora struggles to navigate the former Cardassian space station, and there are many places she cannot enter because they aren’t wheelchair accessible. In my own life, I often struggle to access basic necessities because my access needs are not considered or cannot be met due to the geography of an area. Melora was the first wheelchair user I’ve seen who had her access struggles openly acknowledged and discussed as a failing of the people that built the station rather than a personal fault.
In most representations of disabled people in the media, we are either killed off or cured. I don’t see myself in those representations. Melora was different; she chose not to be cured because doing so would cut her off from her community and family. I don’t want to be cured either, for similar reasons. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is difficult to live with, but it’s as much a part of my identity as being queer is. Like Melora, choosing to be cured would cut me off from a community I love and is not the only solution to the aspects of my disability that are hard to live with. Melora struggles because the world she lives in is not adapted to her needs. Likewise, most of my struggles are because of inaccessibility and denial of needed support.
— Meredith | Instagram
16. Interstitial Cystitis on You
I have interstitial cystitis, which causes severe pain, urgency and frequency issues (often have to urinate up to 49 times a day) and in my case retention… The show made it up to be a nothing disease that was used more for attention than a real disorder. I wrote the show and network and never heard a word. Stopped watching it immediately.
17. Mental Health Disorders in Firefly
More often than not, when I see people in television and movies with ADD or depression, I respond negatively. I feel like they’re using a cartoony, one dimensional character as a “feel sorry for them” ploy, or “gee, isn’t it a bummer to be around neurodivergent people?” trope.
When Firefly came out, a friend compared me to River. I know they meant it as a compliment (since River is one of their favourite characters)… still, I really struggled with that. My friend is comparing me to someone portrayed as kinda a basket case? I was dismayed, and had a hard time watching and enjoying the series without bias. I viewed it through my skewed perspective.
Later, with more watching, I gained a new perspective; I can see the similarities they were referencing, but that took a long while to get there.
18. ADHD in Percy Jackson & the Olympians
Percy Jackson is a good representation of ADHD. It’s not a big deal throughout the series, he just has major troubles at school. His ADHD and dyslexia prove to be good qualities, and I like that.
19. Depression in A Million Little Things
A Million Little Things has quickly become my favourite show because of how it handles a variety of difficult subjects well, such as normalizing emotional vulnerability and depth in male friendships, dealing with the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd. I also particularly noted how the show handles depression.
The premise of the first season is a group of friends and their spouses try to cope with life after one of them unexpectedly dies by suicide. We’re introduced to a character named Rome who also happened to be in the middle of trying to end his own life when his phone keeps ringing. When he finally answers and finds out his friend is dead, he immediately spits out the pills he had been about to take. He later reveals to his friends, “If you hadn’t called to tell me about Jon, I would be dead right now. I had a mouthful of pills when I answered that phone. I know that sounds crazy because I have an incredible life and I am married to the most amazing woman, but sometimes I feel so hopeless. It’s like I can’t breathe. Only, I’m breathing. And I just think maybe if I just… stopped… it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Their friend who passed at the beginning of the episode was also thought of as a wonderful, happy, kind, generous man who had everything, so of course his death is a complete shock to everyone. As someone with depression, I related to this internal struggle of “I know that sounds crazy because I have an incredible life… but sometimes I feel so hopeless.” There’s an extra layer of shame that comes when you feel like you have no right to be depressed because you have an incredible life. Similar to Rome, it’s why I kept my depression secret for so long and suffered in silence until I contemplated self-harm. It’s why it took me so long to even accept for myself that I was depressed and needed help. I felt guilty for suffering and struggling despite having such a great life while I knew others around the world had it 1000x “worse.” But depression, other mental illnesses, or other disabilities don’t care about that. They can affect anyone. My experience is valid. Your experience is valid.
20. Delusional Disorder in Back
Back, starring David Mitchell, is about a character who appears to have delusional disorder. He is treated wonderfully, as the protagonist in the series. This is the first time I have ever seen my diagnosis portrayed on TV, and it is in a positive way. It has really lifted my spirits.
Every episode shows him in a positive light. He is never made fun of. His family and friends understand that he perceives things very differently than they do, and sometimes he gets scared of ordinary situations or makes bad judgments because of his disorder.
What is so poignant is that everyone accepts him as he is and helps him to recognize reality, to calm down, and to know that they accept and love him.