Last Friday I tried to come up with a workable version of the “Bechdel Test” for disability on film and TV. I think I’ve got it now.
To recap, the Bechdel Test is a way to assess the portrayal of women in movies, television, or literature. A work “passes” the Bechdel Test if it:
1) Features at least two women, who
2) Talk to each other,
3) About something other than a man.
So, here’s my proposed Disability Bechdel Test. A work passes if:
1) Characters with disabilities are involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities.
2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less, nor more severe than they would be in real life.
3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers … supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.
I couldn’t come up with a test as elegant and unified as the original, but I think these three measures cover a lot of ground. They address important aspects of character, plot, and writing, not a laundry list of pet peeves. They aren’t about either “positive” or “negative" portrayals, they encourage realistic, three-dimensional depictions that allow us to get to “know” people with disabilities, not just react to them. I also think that TV shows and movies that do “pass” this test tend to be the better works overall.
Try this test on your favorite, or not so favorite, disability-themed TV shows and movies. What passes the test and what doesn’t? Next Friday, I’ll test two films, “Forrest Gump” and “My Left Foot”, and two TV shows, “Parenthood” and “Ironside” (both versions!).