Portrayal of physical disabilities in television and movies
While people with physical disability are being represented more in the entertainment space, society still has a long way to go. When characters with disabilities are included, there is often a debate in the disabled community on if they’re being portrayed in a true and correct way.
In this post, I explore 5 TV shows and movies which have disabled characters and how they portray people with physical disabilities. Obviously, these thoughts are all my own and may not reflect every person with a disability’s opinions.
Note: these reviews may contain small spoilers!
Speechless was one of the first TV shows that I saw an actor with a physical disability who actually plays a character with a physical disability.
This TV show centres around the DiMeo family, whose son, J.J. DiMeo has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. The series starts off with the family moving to a new town so that J.J. can go to an inclusive school. It covers all the drama a normal high school student would experience, but with a physical disability. How his mother and family deal with having a son/sibling with a disability is explored.
The biggest positive about this show is the way it uses humour while still addressing big issues, which is what drew me to it the most (though due to it being hard to access, I don’t think I’ve seen past season 1). It’s also hugely relatable to me and my family, like Maya being judged for parking in the disabled spot, the ramp really not being an accessible option or people talking to you like you’re a child (and that’s just the first episode!). I feel that because it is relatable, they must be portraying it right in some ways. The emotions and actions of all the characters just seem so real as well, like yeah, I would have done that if I were in that situation. If you’re looking for a light-hearted TV show that is still educational, I suggest you track this one down. In terms of the five in the list, this is the best one (besides Crip Camp) that portrays someone with a physical disability not only correctly but in a positive, entertaining way.
The Healing Powers Of Dude
This Netflix series doesn’t focus on someone with a physical disability, but it does include a character who uses an electric wheelchair.
The Healing Powers Of Dude’s main character is Noah, an 11 year old boy who has social anxiety. It follows his experience as he attends public school for the first time, supported by his emotional support dog, Dude. Here he becomes friends with Simon and Amara, with the latter using an electric wheelchair. From memory, her exact disability is never revealed, but the actress herself has Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy.
Amara’s character is a minor one, so we don’t get to explore her disability as much. However, as with Speechless, it is refreshing to see an actress with a disability play the character. The TV show also deals with real topics that come with a disability. Amara is invited over to Noah’s house, but he realises that there are stairs out the front of his house which means she can’t get in, so his dad builds a ramp. She’s also portrayed as having romantic feelings like anyone else, while being a smart cookie (because people with disabilities are often assumed as not being intelligent). While it’s a bit ironic that this show assumes that just because you have a disability, you’re only friends also have a disability of some sort, it is nice to see a TV show with disabled characters that are aimed at the younger generations.
The Theory Of Everything
The Theory Of Everything was an interesting story in itself, even if you remove the disability part. While some parts are apparently not factually correct or dramatized, it is a good movie.
Adapted from the book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” written by his ex-wife Jane Hawking, the movie details the life of Stephen Hawking. Starting with his time at the University of Cambridge, it follows him through his success in physics to his diagnoses with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, how he learns to adapt and live with the disease. The movie was nominated for multiple awards, including Best Actress, while Eddie Redmayne won best actor for his portrayal of Stephen.
There was a big debate in the disability community about why someone with a disability didn’t play Stephen. Clearly, for obvious reasons, someone with a disability wouldn’t have been able to play Stephen in his younger years before he was diagnosed, so I have to disagree with them on that. Personally, I think Eddie did a fantastic job, especially getting the body posture and movements which come with having a physical disability (and that are not natural for an able-bodied person). It showed the mental acceptance of getting worse well but also that life must keep going on. Most importantly, this is not an inspirational porn movie (which if you don’t know what that means, you need to read my post “I’m Not Your Inspiration”), which it very well could have ended up. Instead, it celebrates his amazing science achievements while he just happened to have a physical disability.
Crip Camp is actually a documentary on Netflix. I didn’t realise it was a documentary until I started watching it, but it was too good not to include in my list.
The documentary starts off with a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities called Camp Jened in 1971. It then goes on to follow the lives of some of these campers and the movement they created to gain greater equality of people with disabilities. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival before being released on Netflix.
As it was a documentary, it did portray people with disabilities in the correct way, but more importantly, in an honest, educational way. Sadly, the issues it deals with are still extremely relevant today and I think that’s why it struck a chord with me the most. Perhaps if you don’t have a disability yourself you won’t be able to relate to it as much, but there’s certainly a lot you can learn from it. Little things, like speaking to someone with a disability and not at them; the lack of privacy people with physical disabilities do have (though it’s something that’s just a part of life that we learn to live with) and how society perceives people with a disability as almost being totally different humans.
As someone with a disability, even I learnt something from this documentary too. I didn’t know about the 504 movement and the lengths they went through to get the government to sign a non-discrimination act. I think it was the mayor of New York who said that it wasn’t financially viable to put a lift in because not enough people would use it (and if you’ve been following my Twitter account, you’ll know I can relate to this very much at this moment!). Keep in mind, this movement started in 1977, which shows you that we really still have a long way to go to get people with disabilities having equal rights. As Judy said in the documentary towards the end “I’m sick of being thankful for accessible bathrooms”. Besides this movement, it is a documentary that really opens your eyes and I think it’s a must watch for everyone!
Me Before You
I left the most controversial movie till last. Literally, no movie has divided the disabled community more than this movie!
Me Before You was released in 2015 and is based on a book with the same title written by Jojo Moyes. It follows Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin), who becomes a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike. His family then hire him a support worker, Louisa Clark, who is bubbly and outgoing. Will’s unhappiness with his life is explored throughout the film, while he and Louisa fall in love. The thing that caused the biggest debate (spoiler alert) is that Will decides to end his own life through assisted suicide in Switzerland.
For many in the disability community (though I was not one), they believed this movie portrayed them as not being worthy of living. The character was also displayed in a negative way, having no will to live or a purpose to his life, which just results in him being grumpy and sad. The fact that the actor wasn’t disabled himself, nor the author have any experience with people with disabilities (as far as I can tell) probably didn’t help the movie’s cause. If you want to learn more about why the disability community boycotted this movie, I highly suggest googling “me before you disability rights”.
So where do I stand on this movie? While I believe it probably doesn’t represent the majority of how people with disabilities feel about life, some people do feel that way. I also think there’s a huge difference between being born with a disability, and therefore, not knowing any difference, and acquiring a disability later in life. At the heart of the movie though, it’s a love story and a beautiful one at that. What person with a disability doesn’t want to find someone who accepts them for who they are? Funnily enough, the scene that I remember the most (and can relate too) is when Louisa takes Will to the races and his chair gets stuck in the grass. Kind of ironic really, because you hardly see any younger people in wheelchairs at the races here in Perth. And yes, if you’re wondering, I did cry my eyes out at the movies while wearing my ventilator!
I’d like to give a special shout out to Atypical and Five Feet Apart which also feature characters with disabilities. However, as I don’t have autism (Atypical) or cystic fibrosis (Five Feet Apart), I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on whether they portrayed their disabilities correctly. Great entertainment if you wanted to watch them though (as is The Intouchables).
So, there’s my review on five movies and television shows that represent people with physical disabilities in some way or another (whether they are bad or good). I’d love to hear your thoughts about these movies and TV shows in the comments below, especially if you’ve watched them. Hopefully, in the future, actors/actresses with disabilities will become the norm and they will portray their disabilities in the correct way.