According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, approximately one in six American children have a diagnosable developmental disorder, such as autism, speech-related impairments or cerebral palsy. That means that about 16.7% of the United States navigates their lives in a manner inherently different from the general population.
Those with developmental disabilities make up such a significant portion of our population, yet they’re still obscenely underrepresented in media — especially in television. Even though many disorders can cause difficulty with communication skills, thus decreasing one’s ability to share their stories, there’s still a large portion of people who can. Hollywood can no longer, and should never have been, allowed to ignore individuals with developmental disabilities or use them as a target for a cheap joke.
Somehow, television still tends to take an ignorant and offensive route in representing those with developmental disorders. Writers take it upon themselves to paint an unrealistic picture of what these people endure and utilize it purely to enhance their plot without considering the implications and intricacies of what they’re attempting to do. This uncomfortable occurrence feels far too familiar for a society that claims to accept and encourage individuality.
An example of this is seen in a Season Three episode of Mitchell Hurwitz’s beloved series “Arrested Development.” In what feels like a desperate attempt to grab people’s attention in order to salvage their declining viewership, “Arrested Development” spends five episodes on Michael’s brief love interest/spy, Rita, who is revealed to be, as they put it, “mentally retarded” or “mentally challenged.” Using disabilities as a comedic tool was definitely not uncharted territory for the show: Buster and his hook hand, the blind-but-not-actually lawyer Maggie and Tobias’s made up diagnosis of being a “never nude.” But Rita’s characterization truly takes this comedic tool from being a tongue-in-cheek way of poking fun at the characters to being blatantly offensive. There are multitudes of people who would probably call me oversensitive or unappreciative of “risky” comedy. I would ask those people why they feel comfortable laughing at a character who is shown attending preschool as an adult and is said to have her disability due to her parents being cousins. She even sits on a bench that says “Wee Britain,” but the way she is sitting causes it to read “Wee Brain,” an obvious reference to her condition that assumes her complete unintelligence.
As a huge fan of the show, I wish I could make excuses for this ignorant mess of a character. But every time I logged onto Netflix to watch yet another episode of ableist jokes, I was increasingly appalled. 16.7% of Americans have developmental disorders and yet a measly string of jokes about their lack of intelligence is all “Arrested Development” has to offer them. Absolutely no respect is given to Rita, and she is treated as an eternal child, incapable of making any intelligent decisions independently.
There are so few instances of developmental disabilities being portrayed on television, characters like Rita end up being one of the only examples that viewers see. This leads to the false assumptions that she is a realistic portrayal and that intellectual disabilities are available as comedic material. Though some shows have been successful at portraying a much more empathetic and realistic view of disorders such as autism (most notably Robia Rashid’s “Atypical”), an overwhelming majority of television productions either completely ignore or mock the intellectually disabled community. 16.7% of Americans are majorly unrepresented in television, forcing shows like “Atypical” to pick up the slack of decades of ignorant writers. I would like to believe that at least part of our society has moved beyond humor at the expense of an entire community, and as such a significant reflection of culture, television needs to follow in our footsteps, educating the ignorant and supporting the affected.
Daily Arts Contributor Emily Blumberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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