Why Netflix’s Representation of Disability is Problematic and Damaging

TV remote with a Netflix button.

Trigger Warning: This piece discusses ableism, including the use of ableist slurs

In recent months, Netflix has faced controversy for making various disabilities punch lines in several Netflix Originals. These controversies have left me conflicted: on the one hand, as a disabled person I believe in fair, equal, accurate, and non-demeaning representations; on the other, as an entertainment fan, I regularly use and therefore support Netflix.

It’s disappointing, really, to have one of the most popular entertainment platforms in the world consistently make fun of my identity. While Netflix does sometimes get it right, with shows like Atypical and its focus on Autism, time and time again Netflix releases content that makes disabled people the punchlines of cruel jokes and reduces disabled characters to a simple plot device.

In January, their Tom Segura comedy special, Disgraceful, was heavily criticised for making an ableist joke about Downs Syndrome in which he stated he wants to start using phrases like “Your idea has an extra twenty-first chromosome” in place of ret*rded, which he accepts is no longer socially acceptable. What Segura failed to realise, however, is that by using Downs Syndrome as a punchline, he’s still reinforcing the damaging idea that disabled people are somehow lesser, flippantly undoing the decades of progress the disabled community have made stamping out stigmas. He may not use the explicit slur, but the meaning behind his words is the same

Then in September, Netflix released their original hip-hop comedy, The After Party, which infuriated the disabled community on Twitter by sensationalising the protagonist’s life-threatening seizure. In the show, aspiring rapper Owen (played by Kyle Harvey) experiences a severe seizure on stage after trying marijuana for the first time to calms his nerves. As he seizes, the audience films Owen and the videos go viral, apparently ruining his budding career: the implication being that not only should people who have seizures be laughed at (as opposed to, you know, receiving medical attention), but also that they shouldn’t have a successful career.

“My spasms are not painful or dangerous — just irritating — but people often stare which is frustrating.”

This case of ableism particularly hit home for me. Although I have never had seizures, I experience muscle spasms almost everyday when my emotions are heightened due to my Cerebral Palsy. They are not painful or dangerous, just irritating, but people often stare at me when I spasm which is frustrating as I momentarily have no control over them or my body. The way The After Party sensationalises erratic movements such as seizures and spasms suggests to their international audience that it is acceptable to laugh at, joke about or mimic people who experience seizures and spasms.

Most recently, teen romantic comedy Sierra Burgess is a Loser was released. I was very excited to watch it because it was creating a huge buzz amongst friends and on social media, only sweetened by the fact I knew that Stranger Things and Riverdale star Shannon Purser was playing the lead. However, the film was released over a week ago and I cannot bring myself to watch almost two hours of a plot that’s been publicly condemned for romanticising catfishing, making homophobic and transphobic jokes and trivialising how vital sign language is for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing people.

“Netflix are failing to represent their millions of customers who are disabled.”

In the film, Sierra pretends to be deaf and uses sign language, so that the guy she’s catfishing can’t recognise her voice and realise that he’s being misled. This hurtful, ableist plot device belittles how important sign language is to many, reducing it to a convenient tool to aid deception, rather than a life-changing language that holds great significant people for many people in the d/Deaf community. While

In 2018, the entertainment industry is discussing how to improve disability representation through writing and casting. Last year I thought Netflix were leading the way with Autism drama Atypical because although the lead Kier Gilchrist is not autistic they had autism consultants when writing and filming the show to ensure accuracy. But this year, Netflix are not just failing to represent their millions of customers who are disabled, but are also making them punch lines and plot devices that belittle the disabled community and reinstate the archaic social stereotypes.

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