TV and film offer a major way to reflect upon the world and society. Unfortunately it’s still quite a surprise to see a disabled character in the background of a scene.
When I was a kid I remember freaking out when I first saw someone disabled in a film. I was watching Me, Myself and Irene and the kid in the wheelchair was on screen for around two seconds in total (once in the middle of the film and then in a photo at the end.) It felt pretty crazy to me though. Hollywood knew people like me existed!
Whenever a disabled character is depicted on screen the whole film is usually dedicated to them, and it’s usually a shortcut to an Oscar win for some reason (not that I have a problem with this.) The entire film is dedicated to the struggles that accompany disabilities, which is fine as long as it’s done accurately and has deepish characterisations. The big sin in film is when you just present the audience with a stereotype of disability. The character is either this miserable, self-loathing guy to be killed off for being evil, or this sensitive angel who just wants to inspire people 24/7.
I prefer it when disabled people are portrayed as somewhere in between. Inside I’m Dancing has always struck me as a nice balance. There’s a disabled character in there who’s an asshole but for a good reason. Then you have other characters dealing with the stigma related to disability, more than the disability itself. There’s a moment or two in there that punch me in the gut but in a good way – I’m reminded that I’m not alone in dealing with certain obstacles.
And that’s all you want, really: something to relate to. Of course I can relate to infinite amounts of non-disabled characters available, but it’s nice every once in a while to see specific situations that you yourself have experienced because of your disability.
In my opinion there aren’t enough instances of disabled characters whose disability is secondary to the plot. This is one of the zillions of reasons why Breaking Bad blew my mind when I first started watching it. Aside from his cerebral palsy Walt Junior is this normal kid whose main issues source from his father. His disability is never signposted in the show. He’s just presented as a teenager who happens to be disabled. Character is established first, the disability second (if at all.)
I hope a lot of writers/directors take inspiration from this approach. There’s no rule in place stating that all disabled characters must be tied down and plagued by their disability. They could have bigger problems at hand surrounding relationships, money, jobs.
I don’t know. Let’s just have as many disabled characters on TV/film as possible. Don’t just do it to fill one of those dumb diversity quotas where you discriminate against men for being too white and male, do it to make the point that disabilities exist all over the place in so many different forms. Just by having an extra in a wheelchair do something small like purchasing an item from a shop, you’re showing that we’re just normal people doing normal stuff.
Of course things are just getting better and better, with more directors willing to push the envelope. The Sessions is a film about a man with polio who decides to hire a sex surrogate to fulfil his needs. Finally a film showing that disabled people can and do have sex (or so I’ve heard.)
There’s actually way too many films to touch upon here – My Left Foot, The Untouchables (v. good), The Theory of Everything… Just keep them coming. And make them good.