'When you don’t see someone like you on screen you feel disconnected'

·4-min read

Stephanie Dower is a filmmaker based in Brisbane, QLD, who lives with physical disability. Having worked as an editor, writer and producer, Stephanie is committed to bringing projects and stories to life that work to normalise the experience of people with disabilities, as well as other marginalised groups. On International Day of People with Disability (December 3) she shares some of her thoughts about representation with Yahoo Lifestyle.

Stephanie Dower
Stephanie Dower is a Brisbane filmmaker who lives with physical disability. Photo: Supplied/Stephanie Dower

"Growing up in suburban Brisbane, I felt like any other kid. I went to the local school, I took piano lessons, I was a girl guide for a time, and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by friends and family who loved and supported me. But there was something different about me.

When I was 10 months old I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I needed surgeries and intensive treatments when I was young. However, in my teenage years I was simply left with the damage the Arthritis had done to my joints, leaving me reliant on a power chair for mobility and the need of physical assistance with most day-to-day tasks.

I never thought of myself as disabled

Despite this, I never really thought of myself as disabled. I did my best to assimilate with those around me who were able-bodied, never letting my disability hold me back from doing what I wanted.

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This experience however, my own experience of disability, never seemed to match up with how I saw disability portrayed in the media. On the rare occasion I did see someone on TV or in a film that used a wheelchair, they were often shown as someone to be pitied, who didn’t have much of a life, who could say to able-bodied audiences, 'Just be thankful you don’t have to live like me'.

Because of such negative portrayals, I’ve spent most of my life pushing aside the 'disabled' part of my identity, instead relating to characters on screen who personified other parts of my identity - though all able-bodied. But when you don’t see someone who looks like you or shares your experiences reflected on screen, you come to feel disconnected with the world around you.

filmmaker stephanie
She is passionate about working on projects to normalise the experience of people with disabilities. Photo: Supplied/JCPhotography.

Audiences are screaming out for better representation

However, thanks to initiatives like International Day of People with Disability, the way we see disability is changing. Society is coming to understand that people living with disability are capable of contributing meaningfully to society, that we can achieve the same successes as our able-bodied counterparts, and that disability is an integral part of the human experience.

These attitudinal changes are also impacting what we see on our screens. Tired of seeing the same old stereotypes and tropes, audiences are screaming out for better representation and more authenticity on our screens.

It’s this movement towards diversity and inclusion on screen and behind the scenes that has inspired my own work in the screen industry. I believe the way society views people from different backgrounds or circumstances is heavily influenced by what we are exposed to in popular culture and the media.

Bringing fresh characters and new experiences to our screens means we can work to re-shape how society views not only people living with disability, but people from all underrepresented and marginalised groups; a key mission of my own production company, Dower Productions.

Stephanie Dower uses a power wheelchair
Stephanie runs her own production company, Dower Productions. Photo: Supplied/Stephanie Dower

I aspire to produce content that challenges and informs audiences through entertaining and engaging stories for the screen.

As my work in the industry has increased significantly in recent years, I realised I would need a higher level of support that would enable me to keep pace with the demands being a film producer and editor. Thankfully, Mable.com.au was able to offer that and more as they provide me access to find, choose and connect with independent support workers in my local area.

This support has meant I’ve been able to take on new, exciting opportunities in my career such as travelling to international film markets, working long days on set and attending social and networking events; all crucial undertakings for anyone in the screen industry, but particularly for practitioners in the emerging phase of their career, like myself.

While we’re still awhile off from being fully inclusive in the screen industry, I’m excited by the progress we’re making and I’m extremely grateful I can play a part in making real change through the stories and characters we come to know and love through the many screens in our lives."

Words shared with Kristine Tarbert.

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