Ensuring pop culture articles on Wikipedia include the latest in disability research

College is an important time in a student’s life. Many are figuring out what they think of the world and their place in it, and considering their future career. Classwork that gives students autonomy, empowers them to take part in important conversations on a global scale, and gives them a voice in their own schooling really resonates.

Madeline Utter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Madeline Utter had such an experience in Elizabeth Guffey’s “Performance and Disability Studies” course at UCLA last term. Students discussed the presentation and treatment of disability within film, theater, and performance. Then, Professor Guffey assigned them to choose a Wikipedia article about a film, TV show, or play they discussed in class and make sure it represented the latest disability research.

Madeline and a partner chose the Wikipedia article about the 1988 film Rain Man, which receives more than 2,000 page views a day. After doing a close reading of the article to figure out where they might rewrite or add to content, they noticed an important omission.

“At times, the film erroneously portrayed Savant Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder in order to advance the film’s agenda,” Madeline says. “Unfortunately, this misrepresentation has led to widespread, incorrect beliefs about both Savant Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. While the film was revolutionary for its time in portraying developmental disability on screen, it left many holes and potentially caused false ideas about developmental disabilities to spread among viewers.”

So the students decided to correct the public record. They added information to the Wikipedia article about screenwriter Barry Morrow’s inspiration for the film’s main character, Raymond Babbitt, as well as Morrow’s unawareness of the intricacies of the neurodivergent conditions he was portraying. The students also detailed some of Dustin Hoffman’s decisions in playing the character of Raymond Babbitt that have led to public misunderstanding around the connection between autism spectrum disorder and Savant Syndrome. Readers of the article will also find a new section detailing the movie’s legacy, namely that funding for autism research and autism diagnoses increased after its release. The article has now been viewed 465,000 times since the students made these changes.

“I feel that this assignment was more well-rounded and timely than a traditional assignment,” Madeline reflected. “It forced us as students to take a critical look at many of the films and TV shows that shaped America through a lens of disability representation, which isn’t something you get to do for every assignment.”

Madeline graduated in June and says she plans to take what she learned from the assignment into her career in Los Angeles’ film and television industry.

“I feel that I learned many skills from writing this Wikipedia article that I’m already applying in my career. For example, looking at projects through a critical eye, analyzing material through a specific lens (in this case, disability), and applying those ideas to something that can inform others in the future.”

Join the movement and incorporate the Wikipedia assignment into your 2023 course. Visit teach.wikiedu.org for more information. We look forward to supporting you and your students.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.