The disabled in Thai drama: the over dramatized character

Even though the disabled have long been seen in Thai dramas, the representation of them is problematic and unrealistic, which leads to misperceptions. Movie directors state that disabled characters should be seen as ordinary human beings. 
 
In a famous Thai novel, Ban Sai Thong, there is a character called “Chai Noi” or little brother. Chai Noi is arguably the best-known person with disability in Thailand. The character is described as the “youngest child of Mom Prannarai who was born crippled, with a deformed leg and mouth and miniature body.” Kor Surankanang wrote that the boy “was born with karma, and unfortunate due to being born with a disability, and as a result, his mom does not care for him”.
 
 
Chai Noi was born into a rich family, but he is “unfortunate” because of his disability. Photo from Ban Sai Thong (2015)
 
 
Chai Noi’s brother is Chai Klang (middle son), who is the male lead in the story. In the story, it is not clear what type of disability Chai Noi is suffering from, but the symptoms are holistically referred to as “crippled” -- “ngoi” in Thai. The family is ashamed of having a disabled boy and also blames him for causing the father’s death, so Chai Noi is hidden in the house. 
 
Pojaman, the female lead, is a saint to Chai Noi. Photo from Ban Sai Thong 2015
 
Chai Noi helps the audience identify good and evil people. Photo from Ban Sai Thong 2015
 
Ban Sai Thong is only one among more than a dozen Thai soap operas which portray people with physical challenges as unfortunate human beings who are incapable of being successful and always need assistance, and who were disabled because of their karma from previous lives. 
 
In Avatar, Jake Sully is a paraplegic Marine veteran. The movie makes Jake’s paralyzed legs look real through special effects.   
 
 
Audiences completely forget about Jake’s disability when he becomes Navi. 
 
There are an increasing number of Hollywood movies which feature handicapped people in protagonist roles. For example, the Theory of Everything tells the story of Stephen Hawking and Avatar has Jake, a Marine veteran who suffers a spinal injury which leaves him paralyzed from waist down. Unlike Thai soap operas, the characters of persons who use wheelchairs in both movies are rounded, capable, successful and attractive. 
 

Karma causes disability

 
Disability has many causes. The most common are accidents, genetic factors, and illness. For many Thais, however, the concept of karma is deep-rooted. Many believe that some people are born with flaws due to wrongdoings they committed in previous lives. Moreover, disability at birth is thought to bring misfortune to the family. 
 
In her thesis “Representations of people with disability in Thai society: a study of Thai literature”, Kullapa Wajanasara proposed that Thai values, especially in connection with Buddhist beliefs, perceive disability as inferiority and hold that the disabled live just to repay their karma.  
This statement is reflected in the drama “Kro Phet Jet Si” (seven-coloured armour), a folk story about Sarut Thep who volunteers to find magical armour to cure a god’s wife but who refuses to give the armour to the god as he promised. As a result, he is cursed with disability, but when he makes merit and good karma, he is forgiven and his disability is finally cured.   
 
In Khwan Fa Na Dam (Black Face Sky Axe), another folk story, the huge black birthmark on the male protagonist’s face is explained as the result of his karma.
 

Physical disability is the most common.

 
According to a study by Kulapa Wajanasara, of 14 soap operas involving disabled characters, 7 of them involved the physically disabled, 4 involved the mentally disabled, 2 involved with brain damage and the other one involved blindness. 
 
The form of disability seen in Thai dramas is limited and unrealistic.  
 
For instance, the blind are ordinarily unable to control their eyes normally so their eyes either stare in the wrong direction or show no pupil at all. But in Thai soap operas the blind usually stare forward, which is very unrealistic. Contact lenses could be used to make the blind look more realistic but are not.      
 
Tik Jessadaporn from the drama Kaew Ta Pi (Apple of My Eye) took the blind male lead. He stared aimlessly forward, not looking at his interlocutor, which is very unrealistic.  
 
 
 
Or else, he wore sunglasses as a blind.
 
 
Another interesting case is that of the deaf. Most of the deaf in Thai soap operas are totally unable to communicate with other people. They usually make weird sounds or wave their hands about in a meaningless way. In fact, the deaf normally know how to use sign language. This kind of soap opera reinforces the idea that the deaf are unable to communicate with other people. 
 
Thai soap operas usually combine unrelated disabilities, such as a twisted mouth, a squint, deformed legs and hands and dysarthria. This kind of character is called ngoi or crippled.  
 
The second most common disability in Thai drama is disfigurement as the result of fights involving stabbing or slashing the face, acid and burns. This kind of disability is usually seen in the villains to reinforce the idea that disability is the result of karma. 
 
Disabilities in villains and heroes are significantly different. The disabilities of villains are due to fighting or their wrongdoing. Some of them feel such horrible guilt for what they have done that they become mentally ill. A villain’s disability is usually either difficult to cure, permanent or life-threatening.   
 
In contrast, a hero’s disability is due to the damage done by a villain or his heroic action of rescuing his lover, for example, or donating organs. The most ridiculous thing is that these disabilities magically disappear at the end.    
 
The teaser of The Down
 
A couple years ago, a new form of movie involving disability emerged like “The Down: being normal is too easy” a movie directed by Wongtanong Chainarongsingh. The movie portrays the daily lives of 5 people with Down syndrome, at home and in the workplace, and the attitudes of people toward them. 
 
A movie critic known as 9Slow said this movie helped create a better understanding of people with Down syndrome. The biggest contribution of this movie is showing that people with Down syndrome can do everything like ordinary people. All we need to give them is empathy. 
 

Why there is no room for disabled actors?

 
Given the fact that today there are so many disabled characters in Thai drama, is it better to allow the disabled to take these roles?
 
Kanchit Sopchokchai, manager and advertising director of Hub Ho Hin, one of the biggest movie companies in Thailand, told Prachatai that it is possible to have more and more disabled actors in the future but it takes time. We should start with stories portraying the lives of the disabled as ordinary people such as their love stories, their dedication to work, ignoring their disability. He also added that we should empathize with the disabled, not sympathize with them.   
Nattawut Poonpiriya, another movie director, told Prachatai that he once had the experience of producing an advertisement with the blind. He feels that the disabled actually have amazing acting skills equal to sighted people. They just lack the chance to get into the entertainment industry.  
 
Nattawut added that the disabled should get the opportunity to improve themselves. The disabled also have to improve their acting skills and be able to take different kinds of roles, apart from portraying the disabled.  
 
“I hope to see a disabled character where their disability is just their physical appearance, not as a way to dramatize the character. The disabled should be perceived as ordinary human beings and I believe that we will achieve that point very soon” he said.
 
The story was edited by Thaweeporn Kummetha. It was first published in Thai on Prachatai and translated into English by Kornkritch Somjittranukit.