Over the past few years, Netflix has greatly increased its disability representation. Considering Netflix is one of the most popular streaming services out there, this is a big deal. And it becomes even more meaningful when one considers that even though 15% of people in the world live with a disability, only 3.5% of regularly occurring characters in TV shows have a disability.
For years, an increase in disability representation in the media is something disability rights activists have been fighting for. However, this begs the question: Is all press good press? Or is it possible that the way disability is being presented on Netflix is harming the disability community more than helping it?
Consider several shows that have recently appeared on Netflix.
We’ll start with “Atypical.” Premiering in 2017 and just releasing its final season in 2021, “Atypical” follows the life of Sam—an 18-year-old on the autism spectrum—as he navigates high school, college, and his love life.
While the show is heartwarming, employs some autistic actors, and brings attention to some of the many challenges autistic individuals and their families face due to societal beliefs, there’s no short list of issues with the show.
For starters, the actor who plays Sam—Keir Gilchrist—is not autistic himself. Having nondisabled actors play disabled characters has been an issue in the mainstream for years, and this show is just another one to add to the list.
While the show does its best at representing the autistic experience, many of the plot points seem stereotypical or even downright unrealistic. Sam shows many of the assumed characteristics of autism, such as being unable to detect sarcasm and other social cues. And when he locked his girlfriend in a closet and broke into his therapist’s house, there were no consequences for his actions. This kind of representation is a shame considering the reason it’s called the autism spectrum is because people experience and present autism in so many different ways.
One of the most blatant examples that this series was not created by someone on the spectrum was when Sam’s mom said her son should be referred to as a “person with autism” instead of an “autistic person.” While using person-first language is important for some people in the disability community, many on the spectrum actually prefer identity-first language. And Sam, not his mother, should be the one to decide how he is identified.
Now, let’s consider another show: “Special.” Created by and starring Ryan O'Connell, “Special” tells the story of a gay man with cerebral palsy who is learning to be comfortable and confident with his disability as he navigates adulthood. Although the episodes are short and the entire show is only two seasons, “Special” tells a complete story that shows a lot of character development throughout, both for Ryan and the other characters.
As a viewer, the differences between these shows were palpable. It was clear to me that while “Atypical” was encouraging, it was created by nondisabled people for a nondisabled audience. Meanwhile, “Special” was obviously created by a disabled voice. It was both heartwarming and educational in a way that felt more real because I knew the experiences and stories being told were semi-autobiographical. The show itself is truer to the disabled experience. Instead of solely focusing on Ryan’s disability, it focused on who Ryan is as a person with the added nuances of what it’s like to be disabled. And, as a nondisabled person, there were many jokes about ableism that went over my head and forced me to educate myself further on the oppression and microaggressions those with disabilities face.
Overall, it has me wondering: Are shows like “Atypical” sending the wrong message about the disability community to nondisabled viewers? Or is the fact that disability is being represented in the media at all a huge step in the right direction?
Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is. But I know it’s a conversation worth having. I know authentic representation is crucial. And I know anyone who is looking for a good show about disability should be turning on the first episode of “Special” as soon as they finish reading this article.
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.