Heroes and Holy Innocents

When it comes to portraying disabled people, Hollywood hasn’t got a clue

Content Tools

Thanks to audio description and closed-captioning, blind and deaf moviegoers now are able to “see” and “hear” films. After a long struggle, people using wheelchairs are finding it easier to get into movie theaters. But once they’re at the movies, people with disabilities rarely see true-to-life images of themselves.

Of course, Hollywood has presented unrealistic images of disabled people since its movie moguls first set up shop. Martin E. Norden, author of The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Rutgers University Press), writes, “the movie industry has perpetuated... stereotypes... so durable and pervasive that they have become mainstream society’s perception of disabled people.” Demeaning, patronizing stereotypes have marched across the silver screen for decades, from that sweet innocent Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol to Quasimodo, the villainous hunchback in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the embittered blind veteran in Scent of a Woman (1992) and the idiot savant in Rain Man (1988). Disabled people aren’t cheering as this parade of superheroes, venomous villains, and helpless victims goes by.

San Francisco State University history professor Paul Longmore says, “These stereotypes present disabled people as tragic, pathetic figures: Such films as Whose Life Is It, Anyway? (in which a man who has become quadriplegic begs to be allowed to kill himself) leave the audience thinking it’s better to be dead than disabled.” But disabled people today don’t see themselves as symbols of evil, inspirational superheroes, or holy innocents (like that wise fool Forrest Gump). Though the disease-of-the-week flick still moves audiences to tears, most disabled filmgoers no longer view their lives as a two-hankie movie.

In the 90’s movie Living in Oblivion, a comedy about the making of a small-budget picture, a dwarf named Mr. Tito complains about his role in a dream scene. He feels that he’s only been cast because dwarfs symbolize weird emotions. Though Mr. Tito is a comic figure, his anger at being used as a symbol is shared by many with disabilities.

Leye J. Chrzanowski, editor-in-chief of the monthly newspaper One Step Ahead—The Disability Resource, asserts, “Hollywood has a hackneyed idea of disability. To add insult to injury, someone without a disability acting out this delusion is usually either an Oscar nominee or winner . . . Every time we start breaking down stereotypes, we’re slapped back into the “helpless cripple” role by a Love Affair or a Passion Fish.”

Are these views held only by the politically correct? Not at all, says George Covington, who was a special assistant to the quintessentially non-PC former vice president Dan Quayle. Covington, who is legally blind, says, “We’re seen as ‘inspirational,’ and inspiration sells like hotcakes. My disability isn’t a burden; having to be so damned inspirational is.”

Mainstream Magazine editor William R. Stothers says, “If it was just entertainment, these images wouldn’t worry me. But they help shape attitudes toward disability.”

Do disabled people want to take the entertainment out of movies? To turn films with disabled characters into “eat your spinach” documentaries? No, says Mary Johnson, a former editor of The Disability Rag Resource, “but they want to see their reality reflected on screen.”

Despite the stereotypes, some disabled people are hopeful about the movies. “As actors and writers, and from behind the cameras, we’re pushing Hollywood hard to portray us in nonstereotypical ways,” Stothers says.

Two recent independent films offer hope that this change can take place. When Billy Broke His Head, a dynamic documentary directed by Billy Golfus, has been shown on PBS and at film festivals. This film isn’t (as Golfus himself says) an “inspirational cripple story.” Instead the movie shows real-life disabled people: fighting for their civil rights, job hunting, and battling social service bureaucracies. Twitch and Shout, a touching but funny documentary directed by Laurel Chiten about people with Tourette’s syndrome, has aired on the PBS program P.O.V. and at film festivals. The film shows not only what it’s like to have this disorder but what it’s like to encounter disability-based discrimination. The movie presents its subjects not as superheroes or objects of pity but as fully human beings.

If the spirit of these films could somehow be transferred to Hollywood, the disabled wouldn’t feel left out of the big picture on the silver screen.