Teens Ask, Where Are the Girls with Disabilities in Pop Culture?

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AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–Being a teen girl with a disability is definitely not easy. While I get to deal with hormonal outbursts and teen drama, I also have to deal with the nice plate of ableism that’s handed to me every day.

So, what do I do to escape these annoyances in my life? I turn on the TV and allow myself to laugh at other people’s problems and not mine. However, as I binge watch entire seasons, I don’t laugh, I don’t cry and I don’t smile. Not even when I’m watching “Speechless,” the sitcom centered around a disabled teenage boy. For years I watched TV like this, until I wondered, “What if I saw a disabled girl on my television screen, just like me?”

Kaliane Faye had the same feeling. As a 19-year-old with a disability she is familiar with feeling isolated from pop culture. “I don’t think it affected me in a noticeable way until I was older and looking back on it,” she said from her home in Arizona.

Faye has cytomegalovirus, a virus she contracted at birth that limits her physical abilities. “The fact that there wasn’t anyone to refer to was frustrating and it actually wasn’t until I read ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ that I realized how nice it was to have someone to even vaguely identify with.”

This book, published in 2012, was the only one at the time to have a lead character, Hazel Grace, with a disability. While it was nice to have a literary representation of girls like me and Faye, it was clear to Faye that Hazel wasn’t as authentic as she could be because the book’s author, John Green, is an abled bodied man. It wasn’t until Faye was a high school senior that she realized she “went a really long time without being properly represented in literature or anything else,” she said over GroupMe.

Actresses Face Hurdles

One reason there may be a lack of this representation could be because of the hurdles actresses with disabilities face in getting work.

Virali Modi, a Mumbai-based blogger and actress who uses a wheelchair, has become a victim of ableism in the acting industry. “I’ve applied for many acting gigs, sending in my portfolio via email or meeting with casting directors/agents. I’ve always had the same response, ‘you’re beautiful and you have the talent – but we can’t hire you because you’re not walking. Start walking and you have a job available,’” she said over Facebook.

Women getting denied work just because of their physical limitations is unfortunately very common. Of the nearly 2.5 percent of characters with disabilities portrayed in the media, 81 percent were played by males with disabilities, and only 19 percent by women with disabilities, according to a 2016 report by the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

However, there is still another factor that greatly limits an actress with a disability from getting work — the impossible beauty standards set by society, said Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist based in New York,

She said these actresses have to deal with a “double whammy” in the industry, meaning that these women not only encounter ableism, but must also be sure they meet the standard of what a “pretty disabled woman” is supposed to look like.

“When it comes down to having to meet appearance standards and standards of looking ‘too disabled,’ that really tends to work against women with disabilities,” Ladau said in a phone interview.

Stereotypes and Misconceptions

The spectrum of common stereotypes towards women with disabilities is indeed broad. But, there’s one specific misconception that gets tiring to hear after a while, and that is women with disabilities are sexless human beings.

While I’m still a teen and learning about my sexuality, I know that at my 14 years of being on this planet that I am not an abnormal sexual being. And neither are the rest of the disabled teen girls and women that I know.

Storme Toolis is a U.K.-based actress who is very familiar with these misconceptions and has been challenging these stereotypes in the media. Toolis, who has cerebral palsy, has done several projects challenging the “undesirable” taboo. One of her most recent projects was the Maltesers commercial, which premiered in the U.K. in fall 2016. The commercial portrayed Toolis and her disability in a way that is humorous and unexpectedly raunchy.

“I think when you have a disability and you’re a female you have to fight to be glamorous. I really wanted to play sexy, I want to be provocative in the work I do, which is why I succeeded so well at the Maltesers commercial,” she said in an email interview.

More strong women like Toolis need to be embraced in the pop culture world so more disabled teen girls like me can live with the comfort of knowing we’re being heard and represented. As Ladau said, “Inclusivity is not that hard to do. Hollywood needs to stop resisting.”

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