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Empowering Representation of Intellectually Disabled Individuals in Media and Pop Culture

Every parent wants their child to fit in, and for parents of children with intellectual disabilities, this can be an emotional challenge. Now more than ever, television, social media, and other pop-culture outlets are tackling this issue head-on, depicting characters who may not fit the traditional mold, but who bring a plethora of valuable skills to the table.

What are the common problematic portrayals of those with disabilities?

Media and pop culture tend to put a few stereotypes around individuals with disabilities, giving them characteristics that often portray the disabled in a negative light. Staying aware of the problematic portrayals of individuals with disabilities gives us the opportunity to encourage media and pop culture leaders to positively progress in the future. Here are a few common problematic portrayals you may find in Hollywood:

Myth: Disabled individuals are miserable and bitter

In many movies featuring disabled individuals, the characters are often portrayed as miserable and bitter because of their disability. This gives viewers an inaccurate representation of the lives of those with disabilities. Though adults with special needs may face more difficulties than the average person, individuals with disabilities can actually live happy and fulfilled lives.

Myth: Disabled individuals are helpless.

Another common misconception about the differently-abled is they are helpless, making them an object to be pitied. This may give a notion that individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities cannot accomplish things on their own without the help of others. This is far from the truth. At Baddour Center, we see first hand how those with disabilities can achieve goals (and usually surpass them).

Myth: Disabled individuals are heroes when they overcome their disability.

Though many may not realize, those with ID are seen as heroes in the media and pop culture. However, it is sometimes for the wrong reasons. In many instances, those with disabilities become a hero when they overcome their disability. While this sentiment is inspiring, it’s a little warped.  To put it plainly, everyone has their struggles, and we all achieve our goals in our own ways.  Ideally, we’d all love to triumphantly overcome obstacles and be better for it.  However, triumph is different for every single person, and being successful doesn’t demand that we completely discard pieces of our personalities.

How can the media and pop culture positively progress?

So, how should we move forward? If we want to see a positive change in the media and pop culture scene, we must advocate for representation. Individuals with disabilities bring valuable skills to the table and can help teach life lessons not found elsewhere. Here are a few ways we can help make a difference.

Celebrate achievements.

When watching movies, television shows, or viral social media videos, it’s important to celebrate the achievements of individuals without putting the spotlight on any given impairment. Those who have disabilities aren’t looking for pity.  When portraying any kind of special need in media, focusing on accomplishments for what they are is a big step in the right direction.

Advocate in your community.

One of the first steps we can all take to help media and pop culture positively progress is to advocate in our own communities. When we all use our voices to speak up about problematic portrayals of differently-abled people in television and movies, we have the opportunity to make a difference. Share positive moments on Facebook, snap a picture for Instagram, and make an effort to show that their normal is normal.  Every movement starts small, but together we can make a huge change.

Pay attention while consuming content.

Last but not least, pay close attention while consuming content. Oftentimes, we may not even realize when we are buying into the false narrative behind individuals with disabilities. It becomes natural to feel bad for someone for their disabilities instead of celebrating their differences. To see a positive progression, we have to start with ourselves.

Individuals Making A Splash

Now that we’ve examined the ways we can empower and portray people with IDD more accurately in pop culture, let’s take a look at some individuals who are really being ambassadors for the community.

Jamie Brewer

If you’re familiar with American Horror Story, then you’ll recognize theatrical and television actress Jamie Brewer.  She’s part of the ensemble cast of this popular TV series and has played a variety of roles.  Not only is an accomplished actress, but she’s also an activist for the IDD community, using her platform to teach, inform, and educate others about the many talents of individuals with disabilities.

Sujeet Desai

An accomplished musician, Sujeet Desai can play seven different instruments!  He has performed in almost every state in the U.S. and in 13 countries across the globe.  Sujeet is an award-winning performer, as well as an activist for the IDD community.  He spreads joy with his music and encourages others to seek out their own passions and opportunities.

Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart is a supermodel of international fame.  When she’s not strutting on the runway, she’s crushing it on social media.  Madeline began her career when she was just 18 years old.  She rose to stardom quickly and now has her own clothing line.  She’s been in the number one slot in Forbes magazine as a fashion game-changer and has been selected by major brands to be their spokesperson.  Her mother notes that while she’s been there every step of the way that Madeline is very independent.  If she had any advice

Zack Gottsagen

Zack Gottsagen is an American actor most famous for his role in the 2019 film, The Peanut Butter Falcon, a heartwarming tale about family, friendship, and ambition. He stars alongside his costars, Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson.  Even as a youngster, Zack was taking dancing and acting lessons.  He’s been an inspiration to IDD communities all around the world, and even to Shia LaBeouf himself.  LaBeouf reports that Zack helped him turn his life around and stay sober after a run-in with the police while shooting the movie.

Disability Advocacy at Baddour Center

Here at Baddour Center, we are passionate about giving a voice to those who may not be able to always speak up for themselves. We want to continue providing great opportunities for adults with special needs to show their talents and achievements.

To learn more about Baddour Center, check out our history to read our mission and why we continue advocating for individuals with ID.