Accurate Disability Representation In Mass Media: 8 Powerful Film and Television Performances By Actors With Disabilities
It’s unavoidable. Whether you’re watching the evening news, a Saturday morning cartoon, scrolling through your social feeds, or capping off a long day with your favorite reality show, mass media in all shapes and forms, is always around us.
Film and television especially, cast a wider, more influential net. They transport you to another world. They make you forget reality. And in many profound moments, remind you of your own reality. This is why movies and TV shows are critical forms of mainstream media. They can greatly influence the public’s perception of disability inclusion based on how accurately characters with disabilities are represented on screen.
For children, what they see on mainstream media can help them discover more about the big, wide world beyond the four walls of their homes and classrooms. In this digital day and age, digital media can be incredibly impactful for children. According to Statista, 39% of children in the US own smartphones. Statista further reports that children in the US ages 5 to 8 years old spend 64 minutes watching TV per day.
Experts, parents, and educators all have different views about children & screentime, but the statistics show that one thing is for certain – children today consume a considerable amount of mass media content.
And while the entertainment industry has made some fairly decent attempts at producing engaging media that accurately portray characters with disabilities, there is still so much room for improvement. One of the more recent ones, however, showed disability inclusion in a refreshing light – Disney/Pixar’s “Luca”.
One of the characters, Massimo, has one arm. In the film, he freely acknowledges to Luca that he was simply born that way after jokingly saying, “A sea monster ate it.” According to an article by RespectAbility, “It is refreshing to see a character with a disability like this and have it be just part of him and not a big plot point. It really hammers home the lesson of acceptance in this movie.”
For this article, however, we’ll take you beyond animated films. Get ready to take notes for your next movie night as we feature 8 films and TV shows that portray empowering performances by actors with disabilities – and they’re all examples of how accurate disability representation can make an impact on society.
8 Notable Performances By Actors With Disabilities
These films are recommendations from Charles Mitchell, Assistant City Attorney of the City & County of Denver.
Charles is actively involved in the fine arts community. He has been a board member of the Curious Theatre Company, a member of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA), a graduate of CBCA’s Leadership Arts Program, and volunteers his time to the Denver Film Society and Colorado Lawyers for the Arts. Before law school, Charles enjoyed a successful career in New York as a performer and producer, appearing on Broadway and in films, and working with producers of Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays.
We thoroughly enjoyed his email about this same topic and through KIT Inclusionista Melissa Beck, he gave us special permission to share his suggestions in this blog post.
From old Hollywood classics to contemporary film and TV, grab some popcorn and dive into Charles’ excellent movie recommendations:
1. HAROLD RUSSELL in the 1946 William Wyler film, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
If you have not seen the classic 1946 William Wyler film, do yourself a favor. The film is about three US servicemen re-adjusting to civilian life after coming home from World War II. One of the three, Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish, had been a high school athlete and was engaged to (literally) the girl-next-door when he left for the war. Upon his return, he had to adjust to his past life and plans for the future after having lost both hands in service to his country.
Russell’s performance is not only astonishing for its humanity, but also for its genesis. As an army instructor, Harold Russell lost his hands while making a training film when an explosive went off accidentally. After his accident, he was featured in an Army Signal Corp training film about the rehabilitation of injured veterans, called “Diary of a Sergeant.” Director William Wyler saw that war department footage when he was doing research for The Best Years of Our Lives, and decided to cast Russell as returning petty officer Homer Parrish. Russell went on to receive the Academy Award for his performance, a first for any actor with a disability.
2. MARLEE MATLIN in the 1986 film, CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD.
Marlee Matlin is an award-winning actress and deaf activist. She lost her hearing at the age of 18 months due to illness and fevers. For her portrayal of Sarah Norman, a deaf janitorial employee at a school for the deaf in the 1986 film, CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, Matlin won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.
Matlin remains the only deaf performer to have won an Oscar (and at then-21 years of age, remains the youngest person to win a “Best Actress” Oscar). The film was based on the 1979 Broadway play of the same name by Mark Medoff, but on stage, Sarah Norman was played by the wonderful actress Phyllis Frelich, who was born to deaf parents and was the oldest of nine siblings, all of whom were deaf. Ironically, Ms. Freilich was replaced by Ms. Matlin when the cameras rolled, perhaps due to Ms. Freilich’s age — After all, it is Hollywood.
But credit goes to the directors and producers of both iterations of the film that Sarah Norman was always played by two extremely talented actors, both of whom were deaf. Matlin continues to enjoy a busy career, having appeared in The West Wing, Picket Fences, The Family Guy, and another little film mentioned later on in this post.
3. PETER DINKLAGE in HBO hit series, GAME OF THRONES (first aired in 2011)
Needless to say, Tyrion Lannister, of the epic series GAME OF THRONES, needs no introduction. Now, GOT is not a film, but Dinklage enjoyed a very successful film career before becoming the Hand of the King and highest-paid resident of Westeros.
Dinklage is from New Jersey, the only member of his family born with a common form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia. As a young actor, Dinklage understandably struggled to find work, in large part because he refused to take on the roles typically offered to actors of his stature (4’ 5”). In interviews, he explains that he refused to play “elves and leprechauns,” and when asked what his ideal role was, he replied “the romantic lead” who gets the girl.
His breakthrough performance came in 2003 with a small film directed by Tom McCarthy called THE STATION AGENT, about a train enthusiast who chooses to isolate himself from the rest of the world. It’s a beautiful performance that won him a Screen Actors Guild Award for best actor. The performance is particularly touching given his connection with isolation and the segregation that people with disabilities experience every day.
A few more of the many great Peter Dinklage performances can be found in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI and IN BRUGES, both directed by Martin McDonaugh, and of course, ELF – BUT, true to his promise, he DOES NOT play an elf or leprechaun in ELF.
4. PAULA SAGE in Alison Peeble’s 2003 film, AFTERLIFE
Paula Sage is a Scottish actress, a Special Olympics netball player, and an advocate for people with Down syndrome. She was adopted as an infant into a family that nurtured her needs. In 2003, Scottish director Alison Peebles cast Sage in her film, AFTERLIFE, about a Scottish journalist torn between a high-profile career and caring for his younger sister who has Down syndrome.
Think Rain Man, but without the stars, or the budget, or the slick screenplay. Just an honest, beautiful, human journey. Many of the creative staff and crew had personal connections to the syndrome or had personal connections to someone with the genetic disorder. Paula Sage won the BAFTA Scotland Award for a best debut performance, a recognition similar to the Scottish Oscar.
Sage went on to star in the Scottish soap opera RIVER CITY, and became an ambassador for Down syndrome. Unfortunately, even with all the streaming options available, this one is tough to find. All others are easily “streamable”.
5. ZACK GOTTSAGEN in the 2019 drama/adventure THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
Like Paula Sage, Zack Gottsagen was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. Film directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Gottsagen at a camp for disabled and non-disabled people, and Zack told them he wanted to be a movie star. The directors decided to write a screenplay for him, using his hopes and dreams to form the basis of what would become THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.
The film went on to a successful run and made Zack’s dream come true. In 2020, Zack became the first person with Down syndrome to be a presenter at the Academy Awards, when he and co-star Shia LaBeouf presented an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony. Zack currently has two new films in production.
6. MILLICENT SIMMONDS in 2017’s WONDERSTRUCK
Ms. Simmonds is one of the newest breakout film stars to be featured in roles that mirror her disability. Simmonds lost her hearing at 12 months old due to a medication overdose. While attending a school for the deaf, she began participating in the drama club, playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At 12 years old, she was cast in the film WONDERSTRUCK, based on a popular deaf-themed “young adult” novel.
Her performance in WONDERSTRUCK was universally praised as a breakthrough screen debut. Most recently, Simmonds starred in John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE and A QUIET PLACE, PART II, as the deaf daughter of a hearing couple played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt. While the producers did not intend to cast a deaf actress, Krasinski insisted.
Simmonds and her family even assisted with input on the screenplay. Simmonds has become a vocal advocate for the deaf community, speaking on issues of casting, editing that obscures sign language, and even designing a facial mask for medical professionals that includes a transparent panel to allow lip-reading and facial expressions to be seen by deaf patients. In her upcoming project, Simmonds will star in a film titled HELEN & TEACHER, about Helen Keller’s time at Harvard’s Radcliffe College in the early 1900s.
7. Deaf actors TROY KOSTUR, DANIEL DURANT & MARLEE MATLIN in the movie CODA, a 2021 Film
Garnering multiple awards in the 94th Academy Awards on March 28, 2022, CODA which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” from Apple TV+ was honored with wins in all three categories it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and Best Adapted Screenplay for director Siân Heder. It’s a coming-of-age story about Ruby Rossi, a hearing teenager, and her family, all of whom are deaf. Her parents and brother run a family fishing business and like many CODAs, her family depends on her to be the link to the hearing world particularly when it comes to running the business.
The story centers on Ruby’s struggle to balance her own plans for the future with family responsibilities and her genuine desire to be there for her family. Everyone in Ruby’s family is played by deaf actors. Troy Kostur plays Ruby’s father. Daniel Durant plays her brother, Leo. And the brilliant, Oscar-winning actress, Marlee Matlin, plays Ruby’s mother.
To wrap up this list, here’s a special recommendation from KIT that we think you’ll love:
8. SOPHIE JAEWON KIM in Netflix Original Series THE HEALING POWERS OF DUDE
14-year-old Korean-American actress Sophie Jaewon Kim is blazing the trail for a new generation of actors with disabilities in her breakthrough role as Amara in the Netflix original series, The Healing Powers of Dude which first made its television debut in January 2020. Sophie was born with Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy and has been a wheelchair user since she was 4 years old.
She recently participated in a RespectAbility virtual event “Celebrating Representation and Inclusion of Disabled AAPI (Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders) in Media”. She answered questions and talked about diversity and disability representation in the entertainment industry. Sophie also said she’s received a lot of heartwarming messages of support, both from disabled and non-disabled fans. Her favorite, however, is when fans from the disability community tell her that they are always happily surprised to see an authentic wheelchair user portray a funny, relatable character on screen.
When Netflix announced a worldwide casting call for an authentic wheelchair user for the role of Amara, her parents encouraged her to audition. Although she’s never had any professional acting experience, when she was 6 years old, she took to the stage to perform in an elementary school production of Peter Pan and sang her heart out. That experience sparked a light – her childhood dreams of performing on stage and becoming a pop star held steadfast, close to her heart.
Never in her wildest dreams did she ever think that she would be cast out of the hundreds that auditioned, and have the chance to co-star in a TV show that’s accessible to millions of viewers. Sophie realized that she probably didn’t consider the possibility of acting as a career path because growing up, there weren’t many TV shows made for kids or teens that starred actors with disabilities.
Today, Sophie has become the role model she was looking for and is paving the way for many aspiring young, disabled actors like her.
Why Is Accurate Disability Representation Important?
Disability representation is centered around talking about and depicting people with disabilities in a positive, accurate manner. But as simple as it sounds, it remains a complex issue.
The trouble is that representation of disability in the mass media is often inaccurate and typically falls into one of two, overly-simplified categories: the funny disability and the tragic disability. In both cases, there’s a lack of complexity. When we only see disabilities represented as a source of humor or sadness, it contributes to an overall lack of understanding about how people with disabilities live.
Another common disability representation issue is the portrayal of disabled characters by able-bodied actors. The reasons for this vary; it could be that an actor is already famous, so they’re given the role regardless of their ability to portray the disability accurately.
In the same write-up that included the film recommendations above, Charles wrote, “… there is a rather tasteless saying in Hollywood that if you want to win an Oscar, you should play a character with a disability. There may, however, be some ugly truth to this unfortunate cliché. 61 actors have received Oscar nominations for playing a character with a disability. Of those nominated, 27 have actually won the film industry’s highest honor for their performances. BUT, of those 61 nominees and 27 winners, only two winners were actually disabled performers sharing the same disability as their fictional counterparts.”
Another possible reason for handing able-bodied actors the role of playing characters with disabilities could be that casting directors and other industry professionals simply lack awareness of disabled actors who would otherwise have been perfect for the role.
Regardless of the reason, the recent numbers show a sharp decline in disability representation in films:
- GLAAD’s 2021 Where We Are On TV Report states that “Series regular characters with disabilities saw a decrease, down to 2.8 percent (22 of 775) from 3.5 percent last year. This number falls far below the actual number of those with disabilities in the United States.”
- 2021 Nielsen survey findings reveal that when a story or character shows disabilities, audiences who live with disabilities say the portrayal of their identity group is inaccurate.
The glaringly simple solution to changing this problem? More accurate representation! More films, TV shows, movies, plays, or Broadway shows involving people with disabilities in every facet. From production to release, if every other film or TV series we see or grow up around normalizes actors with disabilities in starring roles or involves more crew, writers, makeup artists, costume designers, and staff with disabilities then through the power of mass media, we can create a real, palpable difference.
There are many reasons to be informed about accurate disability representation in movies or television, but one of the most important is the education aspect.
People with disabilities deserve to be portrayed in a way that’s accurate and honest because people without disabilities need to be informed, educated, and respectful of people with disabilities. Young people especially need positive, realistic portrayals of disabilities – and film and television are a great outlet for this.
Disability is a part of everyday life. If entertainment is to be a reflection of the real world, then it should always include disability.
Our goal: disability inclusion in all artistic and creative pursuits!
As disability inclusion advocates, we must always be aware of the power of the media and arts, and how they can single-handedly shape perceptions, biases, and stereotypes.
Through their creative prowess and performances, the actors in the films we’ve highlighted offer a complex view of individuals with disabilities that so often go unseen.
We hope that this article will spur both awareness and action in your organizations to intentionally integrate disability inclusion training in your programming or to start showing and seeing more films where characters with disabilities are accurately represented.
Let’s talk about inclusion! We look forward to discussing options that best suit the needs of your organization and the families you serve. Contact KIT today!