How to Talk About Disability in Movies with Kids

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This is about how to talk about disability in movies with kids. That is, how to talk with your kids about disability-related content that you see in movies and TV shows. It includes a free PDF “cheat sheet” and is also available through my podcast (both are linked at the end of the post).

Whether or not they are explicitly made, there are a lot of threads of disability in movies and TV shows.

With film being our primary medium these days, that means that there are near-endless ways to talk about disability with your kids. You just need to know what your kids are watching, be ready to hit the “pause” button, and/or keep track of the content and see the threads so that you can talk about it with them later.

Questions for the Conscious Parent

If you don’t have a disability yourself (and sometimes even if you do), your antenna might not be as tuned in or ready to dissect things that are disability-related online.

It might take you a while to kind of zero in on problematic portrayals of disability, or objectively view the messages that your child is consuming that relates to disability.

So you really want to hold some questions in your mind as you watch media and examine how disability is presented.

These questions can include:

  • Is this empowering?
  • Does this ultimately inspire pity or not? Why or why not?
  • If the aspect of disability was replaced with another minority group, would it inspire the same feelings or even be socially acceptable?
  • Are there other pieces in play here – what about the role of race, wealth and privilege for a given character?

The idea is to really think about the how’s, why’s and wherefore’s of given media and disability portrayal.

It’s not to be a negative nelly or prove some point; it’s just to figure out what is being said, both explicitly and implicitly.

Talking to Your Kids About Disability

I want my kids to see disability as a natural and normal part of the human experience. I want them to see it as an integral component within our human family.

Towards that end, we hit the “pause” button while watching movies a lot!

We also have a lot of processing discussions about what we’ve watched after we’ve finished a movie or a show – like we did with the movie, Wonder (my post about that is linked here).

I want my kids to be woke about this stuff! Let the internalized ableism end with me.

Here are some of the ways that I think it makes sense to talk about disability in media:

  1. Ask “Why” 5 Times

We can get to the bottom of something pretty effectively by asking, “why” 5 times.

The way it works is, I’ll ask the first “why” question (for example, ‘why did Augie get teased?’), and after my kids answer, I ask ‘why’ four more times, each with a more clarified question (example, ‘why was his face so unique?’, ‘why does that matter?’).

By the fifth ‘why,’ we have always gained great clarity into what has been presented or what the problem is.

2. Talk About Multiple Perspectives

How would it feel to be that person?

How would it feel to be the sibling to that person? How could you make the story different? Is there a way that the story could have unfolded without so much struggle/pain/challenge?

I encourage my kids to look at the role that culture plays in all of this, because culture is flexible, always changing. It is not a universal law. If the pain/struggle/challenge could be avoided by changing culture, well, then, how can we change culture?

3. Examine Access and Equality

My kids are used to looking for access, because they have a deaf mom.

We never watch movies or consume media unless it’s captioned.

Added to that, I didn’t realize how closely they were watching me when I used to use my double BOB stroller as an accessible yardstick. You see: the double BOB is the same width as a manual wheelchair. If I couldn’t get through a door/aisle/whatever with it, I would go to customer service and tell them that they were in ADA violation, because it was not accessible. 🙂

We talk about access: access within the movie, access and equality in the lives the show. In the case of Wonder, for example, we talked a lot about white privilege and the role of wealth. These are all factors in conversations that we should be having about disability.

4. Representation Matters

Is it okay for someone to play a disabled character?

We talk about blackface, and about the currently standard practice of non-disabled actors playing disabled roles, and what that means for the disability community.

We talk about getting it right, and about authenticity, integrity. About the way you just can’t learn a few words in ASL and then get it right.

Here’s a video from Nyle DiMarco about deaf representation – which can easily be transferred to any other disability:

Representation Matters: Why Deaf Actors Should Play Deaf Characters

5. Think of What They HAVE

We keep thinking of disability as this massive deficit, when in reality, it’s simply a platform upon which people experience the world.

Disability is nothing but particular ways of seeing, hearing, sensing, emoting, thinking, processing, walking (- rolling!), moving, being. So, I encourage my kids to think of everything the person with the disability had that was really going on for him/her.

That would include (but not limited to!) :

  • family: did they have a great, strong, cohesive family?
  • privilege?
  • friends?
  • skill sets?
  • skill sets developed because of disability?
  • love, or love interest?
  • opportunities?
  • physical attractiveness by societal standards?
  • resourcefulness?
  • savvy organizational ability?

The list can go on. 

The idea though is to have your kids really be able to flesh out what someone with a disability has going for them, which I think helps mitigate that pity/helplessness that can surround the concept of ‘disability.’

Does that make sense?

We aren’t going to shift the idea that disability is undesirable unless and until we can shift the narratives that surround it.

talking to kids about disability in movies: image of a mom with three kids, playing

Movies and TV Shows are Powerful

Movies and TV Shows are part of what shapes culture.

Culture shapes our lives.

They are incredibly powerful ways of conveying ideas, emotions, stories.

I truly believe in the good that it holds, and I love how movies and shows reach people in new ways. I love the possibility, the thrill of adventuring through the unknown that they can bring.

If you are sensing that I’m about to slam you with a “…but” here, you are sort of right!

I love them BUT BECAUSE they shape culture, it’s achingly important to get this right.

We need to teach our kids to be careful consumers of media, to enjoy a movie by all means, but be able to see where and how a film-maker or production member wove some ableism into the story.

Have them growing up aware of privilege, of intersections in disability.

Have them growing up aware that the platform upon which disabled people stand is not pitiable, shameful, to be overcome, or anything else – it’s simply a particular way that we experience the world, and that’s a good thing.

talking to kids about disability in movies: image of a mom with three kids, playing

Let’s get this right.

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How to Talk About Disability with Kids

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Meriah
Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a cat-loving Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
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