I always knew I was different. Not because my parents told me I would never grow very much, or because I couldn’t reach things that other kids could – these were just incidental facts. I always knew I was different because that’s the way the media and strangers in the community treated me.
Through uninvited pointing, unsolicited photographs, spiteful sniggering etc., able-bodied strangers, with no experience of Disability or difference, taught me that having a Disability meant I was ‘different’. My identity as a young woman, overshadowed by the monstrously stigmatized one of ‘dwarf’.
TV, movies and social media fuel and perpetuate prejudicial discourses around Disability. The relentless litany of just-bad ‘midget’ jokes by comedians, film characters like Mini-Me, the ‘Dwarf Toss’ in The Wolf of Wall Street, ‘dwarf as elf’ Christmas traditions, and news titles like ‘Dwarf Stripper Finds Love With 6ft Army Sergeant’ are all too common examples of how Disability is treated by the media.
This cultural phenomenon is rooted in a long history of exploitation of people with Disabilities by the entertainment industry, most obviously in the freak shows of 16th to 19th century Europe. These shows exhibited people with various Disabilities as ‘freaks of nature’ to the delight of audiences all over Europe and established some of the first global discourses around Disability, some of which remain popular today.
Take for instance my Disability, dwarfism. The highly offensive term ‘midget’ was coined in the freak shows to market the exhibition of people with dwarfism. It is still frequently used on the streets and on our screens to illicit laughter from able-bodied audiences and to demean or objectify people with dwarfing conditions.
In fact, people with Dwarfism are so used to having our humanity stripped away by reporters and producers that an article in the Daily Mail about actor Peter Dinklage was celebrated on Disability forums as a triumph of journalistic equality. Why? Because it never once referred to him as a ‘dwarf’ or ‘midget’. It also contained a total of zero smirk-inducing puns about his stature. So aside from its banal subject matter, it was pretty ground breaking stuff.
Unfortunately more recent articles indicate that the dignity afforded to Dinklage in the DM is more likely a side effect of his super-stardom rather than a significant shift in the Disability paradigm.
Having a Disability and knowing all the extraordinary experiences – both good and bad – that so many people have had as a result of their Disability, I’m always surprised by this common mistreatment in the media. If anything, Disability adds a level of complexity to the world that makes an individual with one more interesting, not less. Less worthy of patronizing journalistic treatment and comedic prop parts and more worthy of meaningful lead roles.
Speaking of meaningful lead roles, I want to mention Game of Thrones and the character of Tyrion Lannister. This is the perfect example of how Disability should be treated in fiction. Tyrion is a well-developed and complex character. He’s an intelligent man born to privilege at a time of great political unrest. He also has dwarfism and the consequences of his Disability have shaped his character and influenced his life proportionately. His Disability isn’t glossed over as inconsequential, nor does it define him. Instead, it informs his character and story, as it does the lives of people living with dwarfism in the real world. Tyrion is a rare example of Disability done well.
Disability is fertile ground for exploration, and has the power to enrich stories if treated correctly. As author George R.R. Martin wonderfully demonstrates with Tyrion, Disability has the power to add an edge to an already well developed character. Ignoring Disability or regurgitating tired clichés is a wasted opportunity for both Disabled people and media creators alike.
If you’re thinking of including Disability themes into a piece of your work, be open-minded and avoid falling back on the images of Disability you’ve grown up with. Odds are they’re the same ones I’ve grown up with, and they’re messed up. They also have a broader cultural impact than you might imagine. What might be a quick, easy laugh for your media piece, actually affects social attitudes towards people like me.
Peta Stamell is a Media Producer.
Inspired by the BBC’s Disability web product ‘Ouch’, Peta travelled to the UK on a two year working holiday visa to explore the world and meet some of her favourite disability activists. During her trip she was accepted into the Ouch work experience programme where she was encourage to write disability pieces and help develop Disability related content. Five years on and Peta is still working at the BBC, most recently as a researcher for BBC Children’s CBBC where she produced content for the Children’s website. Peta remained interested in Disability politics and played an active part in the BBC’s Disabled staff forum. She considers meeting British Disability activists such as Liz Carr and Stella Young and her involvement with the Disability activist scene in the UK, as the best and most enriching experience she had overseas.
If you have an idea for a short film which challenges attitudes and common misconceptions around Disability you might like to apply for #ScreenAbility production funding by 27 March.