Representation Matters is the second part in the series “Wrestling With My Mind” from Marco Orlando.
I appreciate what Rain Man accomplished in the late 1980s when autism was only beginning to become understood by the general public. I appreciate what I Am Sam accomplished in 2001 when the general public began to realize that people diagnosed with autism as children will eventually grow up. I hate to sound overly critical, but aside of these things, I’m not particularly impressed with how autism and other intellectual disabilities are depicted in mainstream media. And honestly, I never have been.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about it, and I honestly can’t think of a single person with autism not named Temple Grandin that people hold in high regard. I can’t think of a single depiction of someone with autism that wasn’t Rain Man or I Am Sam that didn’t make them out to be a freak. I can’t think of anyone in mainstream media with autism, real or fictional, whose sole purpose isn’t to serve as the butt of everybody’s inside jokes and isn’t on The Big Bang Theory. I can’t think of anyone who is mentally challenged in mainstream media, real or fictional, who has lived a full productive life and has stories to tell that wasn’t Forrest Gump.
I don’t know of anything like that right now because these scenarios don’t fall in line with the existing narrative that our society has already written about people with disabilities. I would venture to say that their current attitude about people with disabilities in mainstream media is if it doesn’t already fall in line with their narrative, they don’t want to hear about it. That sends a terrible message to people like me and it sets an awful precedent going forward. Their narrative needs to change with the times and reflect the altered perceptions of people with disabilities as the world unlearns the preconceived notions they have about them and what they’re capable of.
Representation matters. It always has. I would love to see someone with a disability in mainstream media, real or fictional, accurately depicted with their positives accentuated for a change, doing normal everyday life stuff and living full productive lives. I would love to learn more about other people with disabilities that I haven’t already heard of who aren’t comic relief or sideshow attractions. If push comes to shove and a new narrative needs to be written, I’m on board with doing my part to write a new narrative.
A man’s word is all he has to fall back on in life. This is why I’ve wanted to be a writer. I want my words to mean something. I want them to make a difference. I want to challenge what our society thinks they already know about people like me. I want people to listen to what I have to say and think long and hard about what I’m saying. To do this, I owe it to myself and to other people like me to put myself out there for the rest of the world to see and allow myself to be vulnerable. I want to be honest and transparent about what goes on in my head, even if it makes me uncomfortable. I want to inspire other people like me and give them hope. If I can encourage anyone at all, even one person, to think bigger or to find their passion, to come away from what I’ve written feeling like they can do anything once they’ve set their mind to it, I know I’ve accomplished something.