Seeing Is Believing: Kids with Disabilities on the Screen

by Kathy Wechsler on May 1, 2006 - 9:25am

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 3

When you turn on the television or settle into a comfy chair at the movie theater, wouldn’t it be nice to see some kids like you? Of course, there’s still room for improvement, but TV shows and movies, especially those created for young children, are developing more characters with disabilities.

“I feel kind of excited when I see characters with disabilities because I don’t think it’s anything to hide, and I’m glad that they do show it on TV,” says MDA National Goodwill Ambassador Luke Christie, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). “I think it’s really cool that they do show that kind of stuff on TV because it’s a part of our everyday life.”

Kids like me

Disability experts say it’s important for children with disabilities to see themselves reflected in TV and movie characters because it shows them that they’re not alone in the world. Seeing youngsters in wheelchairs or with other disabilities gives young viewers someone special to relate to, and may help them explain their disabilities to others.

Luke, 12, of Due West, S.C., a “Joan of Arcadia” fan who was disappointed when the show was canceled last spring after two seasons, was drawn to the character Kevin Girardi (played by Jason Ritter). Kevin, who’s the older brother of the title character, uses a wheelchair as the result of a car accident.

Kevin Girardi

On CBS's "Joan of Arcadia," Kevin Girardi continues building the boat that was started by his sister. Photo courtesy of CBS


Dragon Tales

As teammates in a race against their friends, “Dragon Tales’” Lorca and Enrique modify Lorca’s wheelchair. Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

Frankie Muniz

In “Miracle in Lane 2,” Justin Yoder celebrates his victory with his crew members. Photo courtesy of the Disney Channel

Sesame street characters

A new Muppet character on the French “Sesame Street” is an energetic girl who uses a wheelchair. Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

“When I first saw ‘Joan of Arcadia’ I was flipping through the channels, and I saw the kid in the wheelchair. That caught my attention first of all,” Luke says. “I’d make comments about how Kevin dealt with some of his challenges, and I’d think about how true they are, and how close they are to some of my challenges -just how you get through everyday life when you’re in a wheelchair.”

Lauren Carter, 14, of Katy, Texas, says that seeing characters with disabilities is also helpful to nondisabled kids, who might not know anyone with a disability. It can show them that kids with disabilities are just like other kids and even open doors for communication amongst them.

Lauren has SMA and was the MDA National Goodwill Ambassador in 2000.

Something to strive for

Kids are impressionable, making it important for kids with disabilities to see positive representations of people with disabilities on TV and in movies.

“It gives them models that they can use to think about how they can live a life that is satisfying and full,” says Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an associate professor of English and women’s studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Garland-Thomson works in the disabilities studies field investigating the cultural aspects of disability.

Released in 2000, the Disney Channel’s “Miracle in Lane 2’” is a good example of a movie that positively portrays a character with a disability. Justin Yoder, 13, (played by Frankie Muniz of “Malcolm in the Middle”) uses a wheelchair because of spina bifida and dreams of winning trophies like his older, able-bodied brother.

Because he has faith in himself, Justin talks his parents into letting him participate in a soapbox derby. His family is skeptical of the idea, but Justin does whatever it takes to make his dream a reality and wins the race.

Based on a true story, this movie sends a message that people with disabilities have the strength to accomplish anything they want. All it takes is having faith in themselves and finding others who believe in them.

Luke respects the way Kevin from “Joan of Arcadia” stands up for himself and doesn’t let anyone pity him or give him special treatment. One episode in particular raised the issue of pride and self-worth.

Kevin’s parents wanted to buy him a car, but he became angry and reminded them that before his accident, they were going to make him buy it himself. He informed them that he’s no different from the boy he was before the accident, and he’ll work to pay for the car. He gets a job as a writer for a newspaper.

Lauren, a ninth-grader at Morton Ranch High School, says she gets upset when the TV or movie character with a disability is pitied by other characters. She likes the character to be strong and not dwell on his or her disability.

A sense of normal

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) currently airs three children’s programs with recurring characters who have disabilities: “Maya & Miguel,” “Clifford’s Puppy Days” and “Dragon Tales.”

An animated series for preschool children premiering in the late 1990s, “Dragon Tales” follows two children on their adventures to Dragon Land. One of the friendly dragons, who was introduced in 2001, is Lorca, who uses a wheelchair.

“We wanted to introduce a character in a wheelchair and have him blend in with the other characters so that in some stories we never mention the wheelchair. He just goes along and participates with the other characters,” says Rita Weisskoff, the Sesame Workshop content director on “Dragon Tales.”

“We picture (Lorca) as very competent, and there isn’t in the show any real description of why he’s in a chair or what happened to him. It’s just simply the kids accept him.”

Weisskoff, who has consulted experts to ensure that kids with disabilities are portrayed accurately, says the show makes an effort to portray all kinds of characters and show that their differences don’t change the way they relate to each other.

“I think it’s really interesting and a good goal to have more characters with disabilities, leading lives that are productive and whose personalities shine through, so the disability is not the focus of the show, it’s not the challenge to get over,” she says.

A new animated preschool program that has a character with a disability premiered in April on Noggin. In “Pinky Dinky Doo,” Bobby Boom uses a wheelchair and is one of the title character’s friends.

Luke, who’s in seventh grade at Cherokee Trail Elementary in Donalds, S.C., brings up the animated movie, “Finding Nemo,” which was released in 2003. Nemo is a young clownfish, who was the only survivor when a barracuda attacked him, his mother and his siblings, and he was left with a “funny fin.”

“It’s a good example because there are a lot of us like that who are pretty much equal except maybe a crooked foot or something that keeps you back from all the others,” Luke says. “I think it’s a very good example of a person with a disability who just wants to be normal and kind of overlooks it and goes on with life.

“When I go to do something I don’t even think about [my disability]. If I can do it, it’s never an issue, but if I can’t do it then I remember I’m in a wheelchair. Sometimes we overlook those kinds of things.”

Are you out there?

When asked to identify the names of some TV shows that have characters with disabilities, the popular response is, “I know they’re out there, but I can’t think of any names.”

In past years there just haven’t been many shows and movies representing those with disabilities or presenting them in positive ways, says Garland-Thomson.

When images of people with disabilities do occur, they might be harder to recognize, she says.

“If every television show a kid saw had a disabled person in it and that disabled person were doing something that was positive, it would probably be easier cumulatively for kids to identify with that,” she says. “But when the numbers are very small and some of the images aren’t so positive, then it becomes harder.”

Another thing children seldom see is a main character with a disability. Garland-Thomson says that it becomes risky for TV and movie producers to introduce the unexpected image of a character with a disability because it might not sell advertising or be a hit at the box office.

“Often the role of a disabled character has been to make the able-bodied character look better. So to suddenly have a disabled character as a central part of the plot is very bold,” she says. “You want to give people what they are used to but you also want to give them something that might be a little novel.”

The new French version of “Sesame Street” dares to venture outside the box with one of the six main Muppet characters being a girl who uses a wheelchair. Griotte, who always joins in on the fun, provides positive images of children with disabilities.

Some suggestions

John Ryan, 17, of Howell, N.J., wishes TV shows and movies would show the difficulty of living with a disability.

“I think that a lot of people aren’t aware of what a person with a disability goes through,” says John, who has Friedreich’s ataxia and uses a walker.

There needs to be a variety of disabilities, says John, who graduates from Howell High School in June.

Movies are better about presenting people with different types of disabilities, but TV shows still need to diversify. When you see TV characters with disabilities, they’re almost always in wheelchairs. These characters are always able-bodied, other than the fact that they sit in wheelchairs, he says.

“If I see a movie or a TV show with a person with a disability in it, I may judge that character more because I myself am in a wheelchair,” Lauren says. “I might be like, ‘He’s doing that wrong or that doesn’t seem real,’ or maybe they could have done something to make that seem a little bit more real.”

Lauren says that because there aren’t many TV and movie characters with disabilities, she’s surprised when she does see them. After the shock wears off, it’s “Wow, there’s a person with a disability on that show. That’s kinda cool.”

If your favorite TV show does or doesn’t do a great job of representing people with disabilities, write the TV network and voice your opinion. Most shows have their own Web sites and tell you how to e-mail your comments.


Recent Movies featuring Characters with Disabilities* Child/Teen TV Programs featuring Characters with Disabilities*
The Ringer (PG-13) 2005
Miracle Run (G) 2004
It Runs in the Family (PG-13) 2003
Finding Nemo (G) 2003
Artificial Intelligence: AI (PG-13) 2001
I Am Sam (PG-13) 2001
Moulin Rouge! (PG-13) 2001
Unbreakable (PG-13) 2000
X-Men (PG-13) 2000
Miracle in Lane 2 (G) 2000
How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog (PG-13) 2000

Clifford Puppy Days


Degrassi: The Next Generation Noggin
Dragon Tails PBS
Joan of Arcadia on DVD
Little Bill Nick Jr.
Malcolm in the Middle FOX
Maya & Miguel PBS
7th Heaven WB

*MDA isn’t recommending these movies or shows; parents should use their judgment about what’s appropriate for their children.

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