Staff Editorial: Representation of disabilities invaluable in children's media

Media representation of people who aren’t white, cisgender or able-bodied is unfortunately hard to come by—especially in children’s media. We know it’s important for a child’s developing self-esteem to see individuals similar to them represented in their favorite television shows or movies. There are few, but undoubtedly significant strides being made to diversify children’s media.

The long-running, classic children’s show “Sesame Street” recently introduced a new character—a young girl named Julia who has autism. In a segment with the character Elmo, the audience learns all about autism in a natural and relatable way—one that does not categorize autism as “other;” the atmosphere is accepting and enthusiastic.

The show’s website also launched a page called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” The page includes pictures, videos, stories and games for parents to share with their children who have autism. One video of an original song exclusively shows children with autism—and of many different races as well—all playing together. The song’s main idea is that all children are amazing and unique in their own ways.

Representation of children with disabilities can also be subtler. In a recent Halloween costume advertisement, department store Target included a child model dressed as a Disney princess using forearm crutches.

The mother of a child with a disability who posted the advertisement on Facebook said, "Including children with special needs into advertising makes them less of a spectacle to the general public when they venture out into the real world.”

It is incredibly refreshing to see changes being made in representation, especially in children’s media. Children with disabilities are more likely to be victims of bullying; when children are exposed to diverse media at a young age, they become familiar with diversity in their real world. When media begins to accurately reflect real life, disability becomes normalized and accepted instead of stigmatized and shamed.

What both “Sesame Street” and Target relay to children with disabilities is that they can participate in and enjoy things that all children should enjoy. When children see representations of themselves being accepted and valued in media, they have a better chance at developing positive self-esteem and accepting who they are.