Portrayals Of Disability In Film

It’d be old news to say that disabled people are painfully underrepresented in the entertainment industry; the news is, there are now reports that prove how poorly Hollywood is doing in this regard. The research as to which stories have the privilege of being shown on the big screen should give us an important reminder: a lack of stories about, or featuring disabled people, equals, generally speaking, a narrower outlook on life.

When analysing the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, it was noted that only 2.4% of characters in those films had a disability. That figure alone shows a stark contrast between fact and fiction, since approximately 19% of USA population is disabled – a figure similar to that of the UK. Disabled characters featured in just over half of those movies; of these, 61% had a physical disability, 37% had a mental or cognitive disability and 19% had a communication disorder. In the films where they do feature, disabled characters have a greater chance of being disregarded, with the vast majority of them being secondary (54%) or even tertiary characters (32%).

Johnny Got His GunJohnny Got His Gun, a 1971 film about a WWI soldier rendered blind, deaf, limbless, and mute by a horrific artillery attack who finds a unique way of communicating with his doctors

Some of the consequences of the exclusion of disability from Hollywood are obvious; for instance, the industry’s lack of interest in these stories makes disability seem far more rare than it actually is. Their tendency to tell stories that emphasise the characters’ struggles with their disabilities limits the scope of actions that disabled people have the freedom to perform in the fictional world. As a result, not only the amount of roles for disabled actors is very limited, but there’s also an equally limited range of roles.

Another disturbing fact in Hollywood’s storytelling world is that, within the already small amount of films that feature disabled characters, only 2% of these can be seen in animated movies, such as Pixar’s Finding Dory, a movie about a fish with cognitive impairment – and while it may have been a big success, its younger audience-targeted content virtually obliterated disability.

The Miracle WorkerThe Miracle Worker, a 1962 movie about the story of partially sighted Anne Sullivan‘s struggle to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate

The lack of disabled characters and actors in film interacts with Hollywood’s other deep and persistent inequalities. For example, if we think about gender, women are grossly underrepresented in cinema: of those top 100 films of 2015, only 32% had women in its lead or co-lead roles, and only 31% of overall characters were women, with a clear preference to favour youth, beauty and ability. It then comes as no surprise that these figures get even more skewed when it comes to disabled characters, of which only 19% were female. This further reinforces the idea that disabled women are somehow neither young, beautiful, or able, with Hollywood’s generic exclusion of disabled women contributing even more to its already narrow definition of what women are, what they look like and what they can do. Likewise, disabled characters are mostly white, suggesting at the same time that non-white people don’t have disabilities or that disabled people aren’t affected by the many problems that affect non-white people in the USA.

It’d be untrue to say, however, that disabilities and rare diseases aren’t portrayed far more often than they used to be through the decades, from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1931’s City Lights, 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives, 1950’s The Men, 1962’s The Miracle Worker, 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, 1986’s Children Of A Lesser God, 1994’s Forrest Gump (or the more controversial 1998’s The Idiots, orig. Idioterne), 2000’s Talk To Her (orig. Hable Con Ella), all the way to the 2015 Academy Award for Best Actor being won by (able-bodied) Eddie Redmayne in his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything.

The Theory Of EverythingEddie Redmayne in his first Oscar-winning role as the famous physicist in The Theory Of Everything

To celebrate and raise awareness to the portrayal of disability in film, VH is bringing you five such movies you might not have heard of. Prepare to immerse yourself in a world where the disabled, more than being “special”, are real examples of strength and self-commitment.



Gabrielle, 2013 (dir. Louise Archambault)

Featuring Gabrielle Marion Rivard (the actress), this film tells us the story of Gabrielle (the character), a 22-year-old who, like the actress who portrays her, has Williams syndrome (WS) and diabetes. With some features similar to those of autism, WS is caused by a mutation in chromosome 7, which causes those born with it to have moderate cognitive impairment, hearing hypersensitivity and physical problems. Nonetheless, children and adults with WS are extremely communicative, easy-going and with often have a keen interest in music, which Gabrielle makes evident in the film.

Gabrielle lives in a support centre for intellectually disabled adults and is also a choir singer at a recreational centre, where she meets Martin (Alexandre Landry), a young man who also has WS, and whom Gabrielle begins to date. Dreaming of her own independence, Gabrielle tries to prove to her family that she is able to live alone, while discovering sexual desire and love alongside Martin.

Bringing us an image of the needs and urges of adults with WS, Gabrielle shows us that the life of a disabled person has far more similarities to those without disability than we could possibly imagine.


Front Of The Class

Front Of The Class, 2008 (dir. Peter Werner)

Dealing with a disability isn’t always easy, but the worst part may well be facing the prejudice of those who don’t understand that a disabled person is a normal person, able to study and work. This film is based on the real life story of Brad Cohen (portrayed by James Wolk), an American teacher who was discriminated against when looking for a job in Atlanta in the 1990s. Why, you ask? Cohen had Tourette syndrome.

People with Tourette syndrome, like Cohen, involuntarily produce sounds and spasms. The story of the teacher portrayed in Front Of The Class brings to light the drama he had lived since his childhood when he was diagnosed with the syndrome. Taught by his mother not to let his ‘companion’, as he calls Tourette’s, prevent him from fulfilling his dreams, the boy faces all challenges with his head held high. Fighting for a children’s teacher position, Cohen proves that he can become an award-winning teacher despite his disability.


Simple Simon

Simple Simon (orig. I Rymden Finns Inga Känslor, meaning ‘In Space There Are No Feelings’), 2010 (dir. Andreas Öhman)

Simon (Bill Skarsgård, Hemlock Grove) is a young adult with autism, a psychological disorder that can cause serious difficulties with social interaction, as well as repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. Living with his brother and his girlfriend, Simon lives by a fixed routine, whereas he schedules the activities of all the people in the house. Everything seems to be going well until one day, Frida (Sofie Hamilton), his brother Sam’s (Martin Wallström, Mr. Robot) long-term girlfriend, is irritated by Simon’s behaviour and decides to break up with Sam. The lack of Frida’s presence in the house cracks the balance of Simon’s routine, and in order to solve this problem and his brother’s sadness, Simon begins to look for a substitute for Frida.

Through unique attention to detail in portraying the complex lives of people with autism, Simple Simon shows us what it’s really like to face the difficulties of living with this syndrome, highlighting in great detail the behaviour of those who have it. Simon’s oddities and the way his brother Sam and his friend Jennifer (Cecilia Forss) treat him provide us with a striking reflection on what it’s like to live with someone with this disability. PS: this film is a solid 5/5 from us!


Lorenzo's Oil

Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992 (dir. George Miller)

In 1984, real-life child Lorenzo Odone was diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetically inherited disease that causes destruction of the neurological system and is usually fatal within two years. Eight years later, Lorenzo’s Oil was released in theatres to tell his story and how he managed to stay alive for all those years thanks to his parents’ persistence.

Featuring Nick Nolte as Augusto Odone (the father), Susan Sarandon as Michaela Odone (the mother) and little Zack O’Malley Greenburg as Lorenzo, Lorenzo’s Oil presents the Odone family’s quest for something that would stop the boy’s disease. Since ALD is related to a deficiency of the enzyme that synthesizes certain fats in the human body, Lorenzo’s parents began to look for ways to ensure fat levels in their son’s blood remained low. After years of study and dedication, and with the help of an elderly British chemist, they managed to develop a kind of cooking oil that (allegedly) stopped the disease from progressing.

Exciting and meaningful, Lorenzo’s Oil can be a real tear-jerker in the way it exposes a real-life story worthy of admiration. In fact, Lorenzo didn’t pass away until the day after his thirtieth birthday.


Um Dia Especial

A Special Day (orig. Um Dia Especial), 2013 (dir. Yuri Amorim)

The Brazilian film-documentary A Special Day is perhaps one of the most delicate and charming works ever done on the subject of disability. It tells us the story of ten women and their disabled children, drawing on their day-to-day lives from an intimate perspective; cases of autism and rare syndromes such as Rett’s, Angelman’s and Lennox-Gastaut’s take a very special place in the context in which they are inserted.

Humble, divorced and single mothers are among those who lead this story alongside their children. Through testimonies, photographs and home videos, this documentary expresses the Brazilian reality of disability and, more than that, the specific reality that hangs over each of the people portrayed there. Through this film we’re led to believe that we know each household closely, its members and their problems.

At the end of the documentary, it’s clear that it’s not just the children that are special, but also their mothers and the environment they live in.


All of the above should remind us that stories about disabled people shouldn’t just revolve around the one specific community, their job-related issues or over-dwelling in daily difficulties, for such representations have consequences for all of us.