Disability in film

In an article that looks at how disability is represented in film, Tom Shakespeare (1999) observes that the “impairment is made the most important thing” while the disabled characters themselves are “objectified and distanced from the audience”. He goes on:

“The use of disability as character trait, plot device, or as atmosphere is a lazy short-cut. These representations are not accurate or fair reflections of the actual experience of disabled people. Such stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes towards disabled people, and ignorance about the nature of disability.” (Shakespeare, 1999)

This ties in with the ideas Davis (2011) espoused, that a disabled character always has to mean something – the disability cannot just be, it is a signifier, central to the plot or the particular character displaying the impairment(s). What is more, it has to signify something outside itself – a moral truth.

Looking at some films that feature disability as the main or key element, specifically ones I had not seen before or considered in the light of my readings on disability theory (not an exhaustive list). Thinking back to the films I have seen, the ones that spring to mind I can categorise, for example: Rain Man (disabled person exhibiting exceptional powers in other areas); Million Dollar Baby (individual tragedy model); Born on the Fourth of July (disabled person needing to come to terms with disability); Forrest Gump (object of ridicule).

Freaks (1932)

“The paradox that the disabled person as ‘other’ is seen as feeble and fearsome at the same time never becomes clear to the prejudiced person” (Evans 1999)

This film deals with disability enfreakment in its first incarnation in the industrial world – that of the circus sideshow. All of the characters who are freaks are played by disabled people – little people, armless and legless individuals, as well as sideshow classics like the ‘Bearded Woman’ the ‘Human Skeleton’, ‘the Living Torso’ and Siamese twins fused at the hip.

The film is categorised as a ‘horror movie’, this probably has to do with the fact that it is a Pre-Code Hollywood film, and at that time the public had still to acknowledge disability in any meaningful way (contemporary audiences apparently viewed it with horror since they had not previously been exposed to images of deformed people). The ‘freaks’ also included among their numbers a character called Joseph/Josephine who pre-empts gender dislocation and bigender identities, but in this film is simply mocked and regarded as a ‘freak’.

The film follows a predictable storyline, where a beautiful and manipulative (able bodied) trapeze artiste pretends to be in love with and marries one of the dwarfs, but once it becomes obvious that she is trying to kill him off and get her hands on his inherited fortune, the freaks join forces and exact a terrible revenge. The once beautiful artiste is reduced to a freak herself:

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with the freaks, or they’ll turn you into one of them. This scaremongering is a bit like the stereotypes concerning gypsies and their black magical or vengeful powers.

Thankfully the film has not been banned, since it is at the very least educational in the sense that it tells us how deviance (physical, psychological and sexual) was regarded in the first half of the 20th century. It could also be viewed as empowering, since the freaks actually take control of the situation, take the law into their own hands and create a solution without recourse to societal instruments. Obviously they are being exploited, but the film does not dwell on difference, and if anything, portrays those who mock them as intellectually inferior. Of course the ending is exclusive, since the horror of becoming a ‘freak’ is depicted as the worst hell imaginable.

The men (1950)

The film was Brando’s film debut, and deals with the salient issue of returning war veterans with disabilities. Brando suffers injuries that render him a paraplegic, he is filled with anger and psychologically unable to cope with his disabled status, and refuses to engage in the life and relationships prior to his disabling incident (we get the impression he feels emasculated). His fiancée on the other hand refuses to give up on him, and her persistence wins out in the end.

Eventually, through sheer determination and ‘facing up to the challenge’, he wins through and ‘overcomes’ his disability, at least in the sense that he accepts and comes to terms with his altered status. The overall message of the film can thus be seen as reinforcing the stereotype that disabled people just need to ‘get over it.’

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

A soldier is rendered limbless and blind by an artillery shell, but once he finds a way of communicating with his carers (Morse code), he asks them to put him out of his misery. His wish for euthanasia is denied, and he is kept alive (for what reason is unclear). The film has nothing positive to say about disability, which is presented as a hellish nightmare, the only release from which is death. Rather the film, produced at the height of the Vietnam War, is an anti-war narrative, demonstrating the pointless individual suffering engendered by political conflict.

I get the feeling that the film was cutting edge for its time, and it was probably the source of inspiration for the film Source Code, where the barely living remains of a soldier are used in a scientific experiment to rediscover past events. Both films articulate the idea that someone is trapped inside their own body and release in the form of death is the only rationally humane option (reeks of fascism).

My left foot (1989)

Based on the true story of Christy Brown, poet and artist who had CP, this dramatised version of his life story won Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar for best actor, but was criticised within disabled circles since an actor with CP was not cast in the main role. The film shows the hardships as well as the lack of information and support disabled persons and their families underwent during the first half of the 20th century.

Although it is based on Brown’s autobiography, the story could be seen as reinforcing the ‘supercrip’ stereotype, since it shows the exception as opposed to the norm.

My Flesh and Blood (2003)

A very touching, revealing documentary film about how a US woman adopted 11 children and brought them up as her own. At one point I was exasperated at the irresponsibility of one woman who had given birth to multiple children with the same inherent disability and given them all up into care. It is a very painful insight into the lives of these kids, one of whom expires before the film ends. I had never heard of the awful condition of EB (epidermolysis bullosa) before I saw this film. Very disturbing, but somehow the kids make it a positive viewing experience – they are just kids, after all. The filming and the presence of the film crew is discussed openly and not hidden – in certain sequences the children react visibly to the fact that cameras or the film crew are there.

The Sessions (2012)

This film deals with the controversial subject of sexual surrogacy, and is loosely based on the life and experiences of Mark O’Brien (poet, journalist and subject of 1996 documentary film Breathing Lessons, by Jessica Yu). Unremarkable, apart from the scene where Mark’s iron lung stops working and he contemplates his own demise… I think I’d rather watch Jessica Yu’s documentary, but it is unavailable here!!

Dance Me to My Song (1998)

This is a really powerful film which explores sexuality and disability, as well as issues of dependency and care. Heather Rose stars in the film, and unlike most film portrayals of disabled people, she is actually a disabled actress. The film avoids common stereotypes of personal tragedy, supercrip or freak, and Julia’s cerebral palsy is not presented as being the only part of her life. She is shown as a sensitive person with needs and desires, as well as intelligence and a sense of humour.

Rang-e khoda: The Colour of Paradise (1999)

Although this film presents Mohammad’s blindness as central to his character, it is not the only aspect of his personality, and it is central to the plot of the film. Mohammad is rejected by his father, who sees the boy as a burden because of his disability; but Mohammad is accepted by all the others in the community, especially the children, who interact with him as they would any other child. It is a deeply moving portrait of the boy, played by Mohsen Ramezani, an actor who is blind in real life. One of the most empowering moments is when Mohammad corrects a sighted child’s reading of the Koran and then proceeds to amaze the whole class, including the teacher, by fluently reading his own Braille transcription of the holy text.


Not quite sure what to make of this soap opera. It only features actors that have Down’s syndrome both in real life as well as in the show (apparently Downistie is a pun on Dynasty). Is it emancipating disabled people by challenging stereotypes (in the series, just as in regular soap operas, the characters are shown to indulge in sexual relationships, jealousy and adultery) or is it merely exploiting them for their ‘alternative’ entertainment value (the Dutch are celebrated for being risqué!). In the episode that I found online with subtitles, the pregnant mother is distraught since her child has been diagnosed as being without Down syndrome! Is this a contemporary version of Freaks, merely exploiting the cast in a repackaged sideshow, or does it go some way towards empowering disabled people and challenging stereotypes?

In the debate surrounding this series there are two camps: those who insist that the show is reinforcing stereotypes, since viewers will only see the disability and not the people behind it, and those who argue that the point is not the plot of the soap opera (since the viewing public is already aware that a soap opera is fiction) but the fact that the actors themselves were chosen for their acting ability and experience, and are empowered by having some control over how they are portrayed in the media (they are not only given the opportunity to perform on a mass media platform, but also have input in writing the screenplay).

When we watch the Paralympics, we see the athlete first of all, and only afterwards the impairment; with actors on the other hand, we are confronted primarily with the impairment, which makes it difficult to put aside and focus on the acting ability. As such an actor with disabilities will in our minds be disabled first of all, never a great actor in his own right, never emancipated.

Although the show does go some way to challenging stereotypes of people with DS, by showing them leading fairly normal lives and engaging with topics that most people encounter in their daily lives, naturally there is no control over audience reaction – if you want to see a freak then you will see a freak! It can only therefore really be regarded as a step towards emancipation of persons with DS if we consider that the actors are given access to a resource that is usually denied them, which is at least an attempt at providing equal opportunities.

If we compare the series with a film such as The Eighth Day, where a person with DS (Georges, played by Pascal Duquenne) enters the life of a ‘normal’ person (Harry, played by Daniel Auteuil), we find that Downistie is a breath of fresh air.

Le huitième jour (1996)

Although Jaco Van Dormael’s film appears to deal with Georges’ disability in a sympathetic way, we are in fact confronted with a set of tropes or devices that reinforce disability stigma, especially concerning DS. Harry is awarded ‘hero’ status, since he befriends Georges, takes him under his wing and protects him despite his own ongoing life crises; Georges with his childish antics teaches Harry to stop taking life so seriously, which finally leads him to a reconciliation with his wife and children. Ultimately, when Georges has fulfilled his ‘purpose’ he commits suicide (although this is somehow portrayed in the film as his liberation, since he does not want to return to the oppressive institution, it is actually quite discriminatory – there is no place for his imperfection in the perfect world of the happy ending!). It is interesting for me to see how an awareness of disability issues has shifted my intellectual engagement and analysis of cultural representations such as this. Although Duquenne is a recognised and respected actor in his own right, and I am a great fan of Van Dormael’s work (Duquenne has minor roles in other films he has directed), this particular film does not challenge stereotypes about DS in any way, and in fact reinforces the need for disabled persons to be excluded from society (the suicide can be seen as a voluntary form of euthanasia).

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