TV And Films Hold A Unique Power To Shine A Light On Invisible Disabilities

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TV And Films Hold A Unique Power To Shine A Light On Invisible Disabilities

There has been plenty of media buzz of late around more authentic portrayal of disability in films and on TV.

Though there are some positive commitments towards this emerging from industry leaders, media creatives still struggle to consistently achieve accurate depiction.

Despite the obvious on-screen visual cue offering some foundation, even conveying the lived experience of life as a modern-day wheelchair user is not without its artistic complexities.

Imagine then, the additional knotted layers to be untangled and unpicked to convey, via a primarily visual medium, silent and invisible disabilities like chronic pain and fatigue.

Yet, the consequences of not having storylines featuring characters experiencing these symptoms are dire for those living with them in real life.

In the U.K. alone, there are 18 million people living with chronic pain often arising from musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis. Not seeing their situation accurately portrayed om TV can compound a sense of profound isolation.

Furthermore, a form of double jeopardy is at play because the invisible nature of the symptoms results in such conditions already being poorly recognized and misunderstood within the public at large.

Therefore, an opportunity to educate others through the power of storytelling and foster a more inclusive, understanding and compassionate society around sufferers is sadly missed.

The pain of feeling invisible

With this in mind, U.K. charity Versus Arthritis last week published a guide for TV and media industry creatives entitled “The Painful Truth: A guide to depicting chronic pain on TV.”

The guide also incorporated the results of research findings from a survey of almost 4,000 people with arthritis living with chronic pain defined as pain that has lasted for longer than 12 weeks despite treatment or medication.

In addition, more detailed case studies of people with arthritis were featured. Many of whom were in their teens and twenties.  

According to the survey, 56% of people with arthritis said that TV and films don’t portray pain well, while 87% said their pain or condition has not been accurately represented by a character on screen.

Arrestingly, the invisibility of the day-to-day realities of chronic pain in storylines led 33% of respondents to state that it has made them less likely to seek out support.

The research also found just six minutes of the U.K.’s most-watched TV shows and films in 2019, using sources such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer and the U.K. Box Office, featured chronic pain.

Jo Hemmings, a Behavior and Media Psychologist, and contributor to the report, said, “TV and film play a powerful role in shaping our perceptions.

“Scientific research has shown that the portrayal of certain conditions and disabilities in popular culture has a direct and profound correlation to our response and therefore our behavior towards them, sometimes softening our attitudes, sometimes hardening them.”

Becoming lost in the ups and downs

A key factor leading to widespread misconceptions about chronic pain is that it is often a fluctuating condition. Invisible when it is present but on occasions, sparingly absent.

The same is also true of chronic fatigue or fatigue arising from neuromuscular conditions like multiple sclerosis.

Fatigue in MS, which is a neurodegenerative disease of young adulthood, is not just about feeling sleepy during the day.

Neuromuscular fatigue can occur when nerves in the brain and spinal cord damaged in MS short circuit causing tasks of daily living such as walking or standing for an extended period to become increasingly effortful and disabling.

To outsiders, on the surface and at the outset of the task, the individual may appear to be moving freely and normally but for the person with MS, there is a sense of a ticking time bomb inside the body.

Bearing in mind that most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40 and do not commonly require walking aids during the initial stages of the disease, the effects of neuromuscular fatigue and indeed, its invisibility, on maintaining a career or active social life can be completely devastating.

Unfortunately, these very real challenges for young adults diagnosed with MS, which affects around 2.5 million people worldwide, are rarely represented in TV and film dramas.

If the disease does receive coverage, it is often via the “trauma porn” trope of an individual confined to a wheelchair considering suicide and/or framed within the context of the burden they pose to the show’s able-bodied characters.

That isn’t to say that the film and TV industry shouldn’t portray the darker side of disability because that is something out there in the world, but there should also be a drive to achieve balance and realism.

To this end, the Versus Arthritis report makes several key recommendations to creative leads who want to run an authentic storyline on chronic pain.

These include liaising closely with representative charities and patient groups to better comprehend the realities of invisible conditions of this type.

Additionally, pain should be portrayed as an important but singular aspect of a well-rounded persona, rather than wholly character-defining.

This may be best achieved by demonstrating the fluctuating and unpredictable nature of pain and fatigue through showing characters living well on a good day, not just their grimmest, most desperate moments.

Finally, for producers who still adhere to the outdated belief that the primary duty of the film and TV industry is simply to entertain society and not reflect it ­doing better work around invisible disabilities can help them too.

After all, there is a veritable treasure trove of depth and high-drama to be extracted from misunderstood characters battling secret, invisible and unpredictable afflictions.

However, there certainly already exists enough strain and anguish within the raw reality of life with chronic pain.

Rather than seek to embellish with idle assumptions and lazy clichés, storytellers simply need to take a step back and make sure they keep talking to the people who know how to help them get it right.

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