Have you seen this TED talk by Maysoon Zayid? At around 11:50 in her stand-up routine she says something pretty profound that hadn’t really occurred to me before, despite having people with special needs in my life since I was a little girl:
“People with disabilities are the largest minority population in the world, and we are the most under-represented in entertainment.”
She makes a good point. Can you think of a movie about or including a person with special needs? How about a movie about/including a person with special needs where that person is played by someone with special needs? It’s a lot harder, isn’t it?
Besides the fact that it just sucks how Zayid’s drama teacher turned her down and picked a girl without cerebral palsy to play a character with CP, there’s another reason why it matters that people with special needs are under-represented in media: people fear what they don’t know.
I have this friend from Hungary who told me she was surprised that I worked with children with special needs in the public school district. When she was growing up in her home country she never saw anyone with any disabilities, since most were sent to segregated schools. The first time she saw someone with a physical disability she was terrified.
“[children with severe and multiple disabilities in Hungary] cannot meet the obligation to attend public education as a result of their disabilities [...] current legislation deploys school-aged children with severe and multiple disabilities onto the social sector or the responsibility of their families.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t only the case in Hungary. Organizations like Universal Aide for Children Ukraine appeal to international donors to help support a number of special needs orphanages in Ukraine as well. And that’s only a quick glance at a couple countries in Europe. I haven’t even touched on the treatment of kids with special needs in countries without a public school system, much less the treatment of adults with disabilities.
Throughout history, people with disabilities have been feared and discriminated against. Families used to hide away a child with any noticeably different needs, and in parts of the world that is still very much of a reality. Here in North America we often like to think that we are moving beyond that stage of history, but the segregation of special needs children isn’t even that old of a concept here in Canada.
When I took my Special Education training we were given a talk by Dr Zigler, who has since been volunteering as a professor of Special Ed in Tanzania for several years now. In his speech Zigler explained how, when he first started work in our school district, children with special needs were all separated into one room where they were essentially just babysat by one or two teachers. During his career he fought to bring children with special needs into the classroom alongside other students.
So why did Dr. Zigler fight so hard to bring these kids out of the shadows? Well, because we forget to care about the people who are tucked away out of sight.
That’s why I’m so excited about people like Maysoon Zayid. Yes, there were always those tireless parents of kids with special needs who were fighting to get their kids the attention they needed, but for a long time this was ignored by the general pubic. Zayid has tapped into the importance of media, and while she hasn’t been welcomed in the world of acting, she has found a niche where she can show off the untapped potential of the special needs community.
On that thought, I’ll leave you with a little jam by the Kids of Widney High.