Different & Able ampersand logo
By
Rania Abi Rafeh

Disability Representation in Media: My Painful Awakening

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Image Description: Rania Abi Rafeh smiling for the camera.

At the age of 17 years old, I learned that imitation was not the sincerest form of flattery. I was born with cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder that impairs the coordination of my muscles. My physical disability led me to find comfort in sitting in front of the TV, where I escaped the pain of my spastic muscles by immersing myself in the images and storylines of beloved characters. Those hours distracted me from the reality of struggling with cerebral palsy, but television’s ability to distract me ultimately wore off. While I turned to television as a means of escaping my physical difference, what I really wanted was to be acknowledged on the screen, to see someone like me represented as an ordinary person. 

What I didn’t know then was that there was a phrase for this elusive experience I was seeking: media representation. When I was growing up, media representation wasn’t the buzzword it is now; it didn’t take precedence in our social consciousness until a couple of years ago, in large part due to the rise of social media. The content I consumed as a teenager on the precipice of young adulthood impacted my self-image and my understanding of the world around me in ways I wasn’t even aware of.  

That all changed when I saw a single television episode caricaturizing cerebral palsy, an experience that brought to consciousness how much I yearned for an authentic portrayal of physical disability, and how its absence in media was detrimental in ways I knew without consciously knowing. 

Associate Professor Dr. Nicole Martins of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington explains that “there’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” 

My moment of seeing cerebral palsy represented on television came and went in a span of 0:44 seconds on Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Lately show. I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, its accent wall painted the wrong shade of pistachio green, with my twin sister, Kareen. Under the brightness of fluorescent overheads Kareen lounged like a cat in the sun on her twin bed while my spastic body squirmed to find a comfortable position on mine. 

Chelsea Handler called my attention from our chunky Sony television set: “I don't know if you all remember Geri Jewell – she was Blair's cousin on NBC's sitcom The Facts of Life. It's a show I grew up with and have a big allegiance to. Anyway, she just happens to have cerebral palsy and she just came out of the closet. So we have a clip from her press conference that we want to show.” 

My ears tickled with excitement as I heard the words “cerebral palsy.” I remember being overcome with a sense of pride, it was finally happening, I was going to see someone like myself on TV. 

What followed on screen shocked me:

In this clip from The Chelsea Handler Show, able-bodied comedian Heather McDonald portrays an insulting caricature of what people with cerebral palsy look, act, and sound like. 

Landscape (4:3)

Able-bodied comedienne Heather McDonald walked out to a microphone wearing a curly bob, high waisted jeans, brown suspenders, and a flannel shirt—all to perform as Geri Jewell. With writhing shoulders, stiff spastic hands, and an exaggerated grimace with a wide roaming mouth, McDonald imitated Jewell’s athetoid speech: “Hey Everybody, I’d like to announce that I’m out of the closet.” McDonald cheekily smiled, cocked her head, and purposefully enunciated: “Actually I was never a lipstick lesbian because I couldn’t put it on straight.” She then mimicked the act of putting on lipstick with a wide movement of the arm followed by a grin. “What can I say, when you’re gay you’re gay,” McDonald claimed with a shrug of the shoulders and stiff hands at her sides. Before the clip ended, actress Fortune Feimster appeared as the girlfriend: “Honey, I am so proud of you,” she said and grabbed McDonald for an exaggerated sloppy kiss—due to McDonald’s performed lack of balance and coordination. Feimster can be heard saying, “steady, steady” as the camera zooms in on both actresses slapping tongues while a laugh track played in the background. 

I blinked at the television set feeling as though a wave had hit me. Dread washed over me, my head felt heavy. Why is having a physical disability a joke? Is this how people see a person with cerebral palsy? Was I a joke? 

I was acutely aware of my physical difference at a very young age. As the first child with cerebral palsy to attend a private French school in New York City, I was approached by the school principal about my orthopedic braces being in violation of the dress code. Despite my physical difference, I was expected to conform to an identity I did not fit and could not relate to, that of an able-bodied person. At the same time, I was also an outsider in my community, unaware at that age of the world of physical disability outside of my personal experience. 

At the time when I first saw this particular Chelsea Lately episode I didn’t know of Geri Jewell, but the actress is a pioneer in disability representation. Jewell was the first person with cerebral palsy to act in a prime-time television series. Though Jewell had a minor role in the NBC series as Blair’s cousin, her performance was groundbreaking. Jewell’s character brought new depth to 1980s media. She utilized humor to address an ableist society’s discomfort at the presence of someone with a physical disability.  

Something changed within me that day in my childhood bedroom, as I watched Chelsea Lately. It was then that I developed an awareness that my identity as a disabled individual would not be treated with respect and authenticity. It was in the name of comedy that Chelsea Handler chose to have actress Heather McDonald imitate Geri Jewell, but this was much more than just playing pretend for laughs. 

In discussing Hollywood’s diversity issue of having able-bodied actors play people with disabilities, Huffington Post journalist Wendy Lu claims,  “Disability is an identity just like race, gender and sexuality.” The Chelsea Lately episode’s mocking of the disabled identity is akin to the practice of blackface. Just as white performers have played characters that dehumanized African Americans, McDonald’s portrayal of cerebral palsy demeaned and disrespected the disabled community. Long after the clip ended, I remember deep discomfort weighing me down on my twin bed. The seeds of embarrassment and self-hatred had been planted.  

Media plays such an important role in our lives. As much as it helps us make sense of ourselves and the world around us, it can also be damaging to the disabled community. Even though that episode aired in 2011, Hollywood still struggles in accepting disability as worthy storytelling. 

The experience of watching that particular Chelsea Lately episode will forever be etched in my memory. I will never forget the disorienting experience of being falsely represented on TV; it felt like tripping and falling, being crumpled on the ground after my body betrays me. The betrayer in this instance though wasn’t my disability, but mainstream media’s discomfort with the disabled body. 

In time, my understanding of this discomfort has lit a fire within me and led me to represent myself on my own terms. But I will not stop there. I am more than the images mainstream media imposes on me. I am an advocate for my disabled identity, and do not want other young people to have to endure what I did on that day nine years ago. 

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