Moving in the Right Direction: Disabilities in Media and the Need for Audio Description

We recently read a blog post, entitled Sex, Blinks and Video Tape, about the way people with disabilities are portrayed in media. The person who wrote the blog post surveyed some people and did some research to see how many disabled characters they could find in films and television shows. Although the number of disabled roles is very limited, it continues to grow in recent years. With that said, the roles of these characters often reinforce negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Disabled characters are viewed as either perfect angels are as a threat to society. Not only are these roles played by able-bodied actors, but the roles themselves are often inaccurate representations of the lives of disabled people. Additionally, the fictional characters in movies and television shows who have disabilities are usually disabled at a later age, due to some sort of injury. While this is the case for many disabled individuals, this depiction of disabled people leaves out a large chunk of the disabled population. With this said, we’d like to introduce you to three fictional characters, who portray disability in a relatively accurate light. None of the actors who play these roles has the disability they portray, and none of the characters is disabled from birth, but the disabled characters in these shows are portrayed as being human;one continues to pursue his passions, the second works for the CIA, and the last disabled character is able to make mistakes and have a social life. This is a definite step in the right direction, and these shows deserve recognition for their efforts.

Degrassi is a Canadian teen drama that covers a range of issues, including: gang violence, poor self image, peer pressure, drug use, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, self-injury, and even death. This show features a few characters with disabilities, including some with learning disabilities, forms of Autism, and some physical disabilities. Jimmy Brooks was the school’s basketball star, until a school shooting left him in a wheelchair. Although he remains frustrated by his disability, he refuses to let it define him. He is allowed to have a series of relationships, including one that becomes serious, and he continues to pursue his other passions, despite being in a wheelchair. Not only does he continue to play basketball, by coaching the team, but he also pursues his passions and art through music and painting. Eventually, he goes to college to pursue a law degree.

Covert Affairs is a show on the USA network that follows Annie Walker, a young CIA trainee who works in the Domestic Protection Division where she serves as a field agent. Auggie Anderson is a blond tech operative, who is Annie’s guide in her new life. He is a CIA military intelligence/special ops officer who was blinded while on a mission in Iraq. Unlike the depictions of many other disabled people on television, Auggie works at a highly-skilled job, is still very independant and masculine, as he is able to hold his own in the field, and he is allowed to engage in intimacy and even long term relationships. Part of this may be due to the fact that, like many other disabled characters on television, he was wounded later in life, not blind from birth.

Switched at Birth is an ABC Family television series that revolves around two teenage girls who are switched at birth, and who live two very different lives. Daphne grows up in a poor neighborhood with Regina, her single mom. Bay, on the other hand, grows up well-off, with both her parents and a brother. Daphne and Regina move into the Kennish’s family’s guest house to save money, and to be close by; this way both families are able to get to know their long lost child. Daphne becomes deaf at the age of three, due to meningitis, and she attends a local school for the deaf. This is a shock to the Kennish’s, but after coming to terms with Daphne’s hearing impairment, they become supportive of her, often stepping on the toes of the less well off Regina.

This show is great, because it has many deaf and hard of hearing regulars, and many scenes are shot entirely in American Sign Language. (Degrassi and Covert Affairs do not have any actors who are actually disabled). It shows deaf and hearing impaired youth living their lives, just like the other teens on the show. Daphne gets into trouble, has a series of relationships, some of which become intimate, is very independant and capable, and she doesn’t take crap from the people around her.

While we’re glad these characters exist on television, and demonstrate to the viewers that disabled people live normal lives, we are still frustrated with the lack of audio description. This is especially true for Switched at Birth. Covert Affairs can be found described, which is good, considering the amount of action packed scenes in the show. It can be very fast paced, and dialog isn’t always present when something important is happening. Degrassi doesn’t feature too many silent scenes, making it pretty easy for visually impaired viewers to easily follow the show. However, the same cannot be said for Switched at Birth. Not only can it not be found in a described version, but there are numerous scenes that feature dialog that is entirely in ASL. This is great, because it enlightens sighted viewers about sign language and interactions in the deaf community in a very realistic way. However, for those of us who are visually impaired or have difficulty reading subtitles, the show is extremely difficult to follow. Each time something is said in ASL, Yessie, who is visually impaired, must pause the show to read it. Others must wait until a sighted person is present to watch the show, so that the subtitles can be read to them. Even still, some viewers watch the show without the ability to read the subtitles or have them read at all. This means that these viewers have to piece together what is happening on the show, based on clues in spoken dialog. This is extremely difficult, and the people who have to do this are missing out on a large chunk of what happens on the show. If you don’t believe us, try watching an episode of Switched at Birth with your eyes closed. We deserve to enjoy what happens with as much ease as those who don’t have to struggle to watch this show. This is why we, the blinkie chicks, would like Switched at Birth to be made available with audio description.

This is where you, our readers, come into play. Our hope is that this entry will educate people who are unaware of the portrayal of disabled people in the media, as well as the need for audio description. Maybe, just maybe, someone who can actually do something about the lack of audio description will see this. So, please pass this along. Share it on social media sites, email, or even just tell people about it. Thank you for reading.

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