Atypical’s Journey to Authentic Disability Representation: Shining a Spotlight on College Disability Services

This article has been extracted from Flip Screen.

In 2019, the Higher Education Commission ordered an inquiry into the experiences faced by disabled students, including autistic students, to investigate why educational institutions are failing to support their disabled students. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act 2010, and yet there are still barriers preventing disabled students from achieving their full potential within academia. Policy Connect states that disabled students are more prone to experience social isolation and loneliness, they are generally less likely to complete their degree and they are paid less as graduates. For many disabled young adults, the prospect of higher education brings with it uncertainty as to their capability to commit to the demands of university education.

Typical coming-of-age stories within television often discuss the transition young people face moving from high school to university, exploring the rollercoaster ride of excitement and dread as they prepare to enter the next chapter of their life, away from the safety and familiarity of their status quo. It’s a rarity to see plotlines featuring young people with disabilities contemplating their future and the support they’ll be afforded for a smoother transition.

Atypical is a coming-of-age Netflix series that centres around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old student on the autism spectrum. The show follows Sam as he navigates through high school, dating and family struggles.

Netflix poster for Atypical. Atypical is written in all capitals in the centre, with Sam, his sister, father and mother lying down looking up.

Season one faced backlash for excluding autistic people from the creative teams developing the plotlines, with none of the writers, directors or producers being on the spectrum. The missing discussion resulted in the perpetuation of many stereotypes being portrayed, ignoring the fact that autism is multifaceted with varying symptoms across the spectrum. Instead, we see what neurotypical people think autism is. One of the fundamental pillars of the modern disability rights movement is the principle of “nothing about us without us”.   Inaccurate or one-dimensional depictions of autistic people can be harmful and damaging, especially if the general public are misinterpreting mainstream media as a valid educational source.

In popular media, disability has a 2% representation rate, in which disabled actors portray only 5% of disabled characters. Imitated representation of disability often stems from the belief that autistic people, and disabled people on a broader level, can’t share their stories and speak for themselves. Atypical redeems itself in season two and three, in which a part of Sam’s plotline introduces a support group for young adults on the spectrum, all portrayed by actors with autism. 

Photo showing the support group for young adults on the spectrum. Sam is seen sitting in a circle with his peers.

During the third season, we see Sam settling into college and coming to grips with unfamiliar environments and routines. In the third episode, titled ‘Cocaine Pills and Pony Meat’, Sam begins his ethics module and becomes overwhelmed with the demands of the class. He starts to have trouble sleeping due to the changes in his life, worsened by his stern professor. Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), talks to him about possibly asking for support from his college. Sam visits the Disability Services Centre where he’s shown around by Sid (Tal Anderson) and Jasper (Domonique Brown).

“…and even if you don’t use the services, you can still use the bean bags.”

The episode finishes with Sam sitting in his ethics class, along with Excited Evelyn (Marietta Melrose), his ‘anonymous’ note taker.

It’s refreshing for audiences to be introduced to a narrative that acknowledges disability services, enabling viewers to conclude that there’s no shame in asking for help as it’s there for a reason. Disability is no indication of limited capabilities, and education should be accessible to everyone. 

In the UK, some of the disability services available to students include mobility training for blind or visually impaired people; lecture notes provided in alternative formats or in advance; notetakers; support workers and alternative arrangements for assessments. Although there is an adequate system in place, there are still fundamental flaws that require attention.

Having said that, it’s crucial to ensure that disabled students are aware of the support that’s available to them. Illustrating everyday dilemmas faced by disabled people is vital in the fight for authentic disability representation within television and film.

Notwithstanding the negative reactions towards Atypical‘s first season, the pioneering show has since made leaps and bounds in its disability representation, narrative and storytelling. The introduction of an LGBTQ+ relationship in the latest season is just another example of how marginalised communities are taking centre stage and breaking through stereotypical dynamics.

Since the release of the third season, audiences have anticipated the announcement of a fourth, which Netflix has not yet confirmed. 

Queer Eye’s Disability Episode was a Disappointment

Netflix’s much-loved reality show Queer Eye returned to our small screens earlier this summer with its fourth season. Audiences once again saw the Fab Five travelling through the Midwest, meeting different nominees of varying backgrounds, helping them to improve different elements within their lives. The Fab Five consists of food and wine specialist Antoni Porowski, interior designer Bobby Berk, culture and lifestyle expert Karamo Brown, grooming consultant Jonathan Van Ness and fashion designer Tan France.

The Queer Eye team are standing alongside each other and are wearing suits. They are posing and looking into the camera. The words QUEER EYE more than a makeover are below the Queer Eye team

Queer Eye’s popularity is partially owed to the show’s deconstruction of stereotypes, addressing polarizing issues whilst maintaining a level of respect and sensitivity for the nominees’ stories. In a nutshell, the show’s purpose is to help good people feel comfortable in their skin. The Fab Five focuses on self-love and empowerment, often bringing touching moments of shared experiences and struggles.

Episode 2 of Season 4 featured the reality show’s first visibly disabled nominee, Wesley Hamilton. Wesley was shot 7 years ago and was subsequently paralysed from the waist down. He is a wheelchair user and community activist, who formed a non-profit organisation that aims to combat mental and physical health issues faced by disabled individuals through the promotion of fitness and a healthy lifestyle. The organisation is named ‘Disabled but Not Really’ something that was also selected as the episode’s title. Queer Eye prides itself on the encouragement of empowerment and the celebration of one’s identity so this episode name felt contradictory to the show’s message. The titling of the episode perpetuates the ideology that identifying as disabled has a negative connotation, that disability is something to overcome. Inaccessibility is the issue that many disabled people struggle with and encounter daily, rather than the disability itself. This criticism isn’t towards Wesley as he is more than entitled to name his organisation ‘Disabled but Not Really’. He has the right to view and address his disability however he chooses.

Karamo is sitting on a couch, Wesley is in his wheelchair opposite Karamo and they are talking
Karamo and Wesley

However, Queer Eye’s episode titling left me feeling frustrated as it was a display of ignorance and disregard towards the wider disabled community, many of whom proudly identify as disabled. Disability is defined by the disability rights movement as the primary result of society’s exclusion of varying body types through structure and policy. This framework is known as the social model of disability and emphasises the social issues that affect disabled people. It was clear that the Queer Eye team didn’t consult the wider disabled community during production, neglecting their responsibility to utilise their platform to help change the narrative surrounding disability. The episode danced around themes of accessibility, independence and disability pride, barely scratching the surface of the issues and values central to the disability rights movement.

The trending hashtag #SayTheWord came to mind when watching this episode, reminding me of the shared sense of pride within the disability community I often see on the Twitterverse. First coined by Lawrence Carter-Young, this hashtag strives to empower disabled individuals to be proud of their disability, to say the word.

‘If you ‘see the person, not the disability’ you’re only getting half the picture. Broaden your perspective. You might be surprised by everything you’ve missed. DISABLED. #SayTheWord.’

The Fab Five failed to explore this mindset, engaging in the erasure of disability identity and pride.

Woven throughout the episode, there was a reemerging spotlight on the co-dependent relationship between Wesley and his mother, Dawn. Karamo took Dawn aside for a private conversation, commenting “You had to give up your life for 7 seven years”, later asking the question “Has he ever said thank you?”. Dawn simply replied, “He doesn’t have to say thank you.” Karamo attempted to delve into something that he has no business discussing, overstepping his boundary with no consideration as to the implications of the suggestion that Wesley should be thankful. The episode continued to convey the message that disabled people can only achieve independence through interdependence, fueling the stereotype that all disabled people are ‘invalids’, imposing a burden on their loved ones as they care for them. The issue at hand is the lack of accessibility and proper infrastructure which forms a barrier to disabled people seeking independence.

Many non-disabled audiences were inspired by Wesley ‘overcoming’ his disability, on the other hand, most disabled viewers perceived the episode’s narrative as ‘inspiration porn’ and a missed opportunity as Queer Eye chose a narrative that distanced itself from the wider disabled community. I appreciate that each episode is only forty-five minutes long, making it impossible for a total exploration of disability rights and issues, but the episode still missed a trick. It would have been wonderful to see Tan reach out to a disabled fashion designer to discuss adaptive clothing and the options available for Wesley, or for Bobby to consult with a disabled interior designer and collaborate on Wesley’s house. Despite this, I was relieved to see both Tan and Bobby undertaking a practical approach, restructuring Wesley’s house and clothing to accommodate him in every-day life. Bobby comments that “Wesley doesn’t need anyone to do anything for him, the house makes him struggle more than he needs to”. It was refreshing to see Bobby travelling in the city with Wesley to gain a better understanding of his daily commute and the difficulties he faces due to poor design.

The Queer Eye are posing with Wesley in the middle of them

Tan advises Wesley on the tailoring of outerwear such as jackets so that they don’t get caught in his jacket. In one heartfelt scene, Tan cries as they shared their experiences of struggling with self-confidence, Wesley asks Tan how he was able to become proud of his identity as a gay man. This would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss disability pride, that the shame a disabled person may experience stems from external reactions and stigma, rather than how their body works. Instead, Wesley comforts Tan and the episode continues.

In many ways, the episode was heartfelt, especially the scenes depicting Wesley’s strong relationship with his daughter. Nonetheless, I had high expectations for the Fab Five, and they weren’t met. They missed a prime opportunity to examine ableism as well as internalised ableism, a topic that is in dire need of discussion within mainstream audiences.

The Fab Five clinked their glasses to a toast of “Disabled, but not really” and the next episode began playing.