In 1947, Harold Russell, a war veteran who lost both his hands, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film The Best Years of our Lives. 40 years later, Marlee Maitlin, a deaf actress, won the Best Actress in a Leading Role Academy Award for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. In all 92 Oscar ceremonies since 1929, these are the sole victories for disabled actors.
I can’t count the number of films I’ve seen about people with disabilities. Many of these films are highly regarded as classics. Efforts like My Left Foot, Les Intouchables, The Sessions, and The Theory of Everything are touching, moving retellings of what life is like living with a disability. And yet, as I was researching this topic, something struck me. I realised that in these films, frequently, the disability defines the character’s role. Very rarely are film characters simply allowed to be disabled.
Most films in the disability category (there’s a comprehensive list on MUBI) are films specifically about dealing with a disability. Now, I have a disability. I have a blood condition that impacts my daily life as it greatly affects how I walk. And yet, I live a relatively normal lifestyle – I’m a teacher, I write film reviews; nothing about how I live my life is defined by my disability. People all over the globe, people just like me, live normal lives. They do what able people do with a few minor adjustments to account for themselves. Their lives do not revolve around their disability. Why does Hollywood think our disability is all we are worth?
Marlee Maitilin, the aforementioned Oscar winner, to this day is a champion for disabled actors but acknowledges her frustration with the lack of opportunity for disabled actors. In the age of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, there still appears to be a blind spot regarding people with disabilities. In an interview with the Easterseals Blog in 2017, she maintains that “diversity is a beautiful, absolutely wonderful thing, but I don’t think they consider people with disabilities as part of the diversity mandate.”
When you consider the number of able actors who have won awards for portraying disabled characters – Daniel Day-Lewis and Eddie Redmayne’s Academy Awards success comes to mind – the lack of recognition for disabled actors and actresses truly astounds.
Throughout the years, disabled characters have popped up here and there – recently, in Onward, one of Ian Lightfoot’s friends uses crutches. A positive moment of representation, sure, but less positive when you realise this character neither has lines nor are they even named in the credits. It’s the same notion of tokenism used to account for any number of minorities in Hollywood films over the years. It ticks a box. Where is the actual representation?
“You look at me and you’re, like, “Why so dark? You’re a disabled foster kid, you’ve got it all.” Right?”
Mercifully, the last couple of years has seen something of a rise in opportunities for disabled characters and performers to varying degrees of success. In 2019’s DC Comics hit, Shazam!, Freddy Freeman is a physically disabled character who mentors his best friend Billy Batson on how to become a superhero when he takes on the form of Shazam. In her terrific article discussing Freddy and his disability, Forbes’ Kristen Lopez expresses her frustrations with the character’s representation, particularly towards the end of the film when Freddy enters his Shazam alter-ego, a now fully able superhero. Having Freddy manage to shed his disability for this short period of time conveys the wrong message. Becoming Shazam means discovering one’s full potential, so this begs the question – is Freddy unable to achieve his full potential while using crutches? For a disabled character to suddenly be able to fly, have super strength and speed, magical abilities, and arguably most importantly, simply be able to walk again should be a massive, emotional moment for them. Freddy’s disability is treated as a gimmick that needs to be disposed of for him to truly shine.
This isn’t to say Freddy is a completely negative representation, however. Earlier in the film, Freddy is open and honest about his disability, making light of it in an entirely relatable self-deprecating tone. Freddy’s reliance on others is given light too (an underrated aspect of living with a disability is the occasional reluctance to accept that we need help) when Shazam is shown having to carry Freddy to safety. What disability representation in Hollywood needs is more of the honesty Freddy has, and less of the idea that being disabled is in any way something to be conquered.
A year prior to Shazam! saw the release of A Quiet Place, directed by John Krasinski, and home to a rare, disability representation double whammy – a disabled character played by a disabled actress. Millicent Simmonds plays Regan, a deaf teenager in an apocalyptic scenario where the monsters hunting them rely exclusively on sound to hunt their prey.
What sets Regan apart from many other disabled characters, which calls back to my criticism of disabilities defining characters, is how well-formed a character she is. Per James Moore of The Independent, Regan is “a stroppy teen, chafing against her parents’ overprotectiveness and haunted by what she sees as her role in her little brother’s death.” Sure, later in the film her deafness comes into play as a potential solution to their monster problem, but writers Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck ensured they made Regan into a three-dimensional character with a role to play as a person rather than making her deafness her reason for being.
A Quiet Place, and Simmonds herself, has been lauded greatly for its representation and its importance to the deaf community, with Simmons stating in an interview that she felt the importance of the role for her community and her success in A Quiet Place might be “a story that might inspire directors and other screenwriters to include more deaf talent and be more creative in the way you use deaf talent,” creating something of a call to arms for filmmakers and talent scouts everywhere to not forget about disabled actors.
“You think you can do these things, but you just can’t, Nemo!”
Finally, after briefly criticising them earlier for their tokenism in Onward, we come to the film that deserves endless praise for their disability representation and all the pratfalls that come with it, both for those with disabilities and those connected to them through family and friendships. Arguably Pixar’s best effort in their entire oeuvre, Finding Nemo addresses the subject matter of disability with so much care and tenderness that it puts a different perspective on the film when you look at it from this angle.
Nemo, the lone survivor of a horrible barracuda attack that saw the death of his siblings and his mother, was born with his lucky fin. A poorly-developed fin that’s much smaller than his other and is constantly flapping up and down to maintain his underwater balance. It’s a quirk for the character that Nemo’s father, Marlin, has taken as the reason why he’s so protective of his only son. Marlin carefully navigates Nemo through his early years, even contemplating whether to delay Nemo’s first day of school by another year to protect him from the dangers of the outside world for a small, lesser able fish like Nemo.
This early sequence is a fabulously subtle look at how others view disabilities. Marlin insists on telling Nemo’s teacher about his condition and for him to make allowances for him, meanwhile Nemo’s new classmates express childlike curiosity about it and make him feel instantly at ease with their own personal quirks (“See this tentacle? It’s actually smaller than all my other tentacles, but you can’t really tell, especially when I swirl them like this!” “I’m H2O intolerant.” “I’m obnoxious!”). Nemo’s friends’ acceptance of his condition is so welcoming for Nemo that it makes Marlin’s overbearing protection of his son all the more impactful when Marlin tries to tell Nemo that he just can’t do things like other kids.
The conflict revolves around Nemo’s condition, but the film does everything in its power to dissuade its audience from ever thinking that it even matters. Nemo’s self-belief is what eventually leads to his escape from the dentist’s aquarium, inspires his fellow aquarium housemates to take matters into their own hands, and leads thousands upon thousands of fish into working together to save themselves from being caught in a fisherman’s net. Nothing about Nemo’s character is ever defined by his Lucky Fin; for me, way back in 2003 with the film’s release, as an 11-year-old born with a lucky fin of his own, Nemo was an unlikely role model.
Pixar really, really nailed it with Finding Nemo. Both as a film and as a lesson in tolerance and as a voice for those with disabilities, Finding Nemo still stands tall as one of the defining films about disabilities that I’ve seen. This is what the disabled community needs to see. It needs to see characters like Nemo, Regan, and even the good bits of Freddy, as someone to inspire them, to show them that their condition, whatever it may be is normal, that they can do whatever they set their mind to, just like Nemo, Regan, and Freddy.
Hollywood, if you’re listening, give us more characters with disabilities. Give actors, actresses and filmmakers with disabilities the opportunities they need to work. The stories are out there for you to tell, the talent is out there for you to find. They exist. They are ready.