Tag Archives | movies

Hollywood News: Actors with Disabilities Not Playing Characters with Disabilities

actors with disabilitiesLennard Davis, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote an interesting blog post recently about how wrong he feels it is that characters with disabilities on television and in movies aren’t being played by actors with disabilities.


Actors with Disabilities in TV and Movies

For what it’s worth, I’ve wanted to blog on the same thing for a long time. But I don’t watch enough current television to know which shows feature characters with disabilities and if they’re played by actors with disabilities. I’m aware that there’s a student on “Glee” in a wheelchair (played by an actor without disabilities), and a boy on “Parenthood” that has Asperger’s Syndrome (and I’m unsure whether the actor who plays him actually has Asperger’s). I can think of some characters from cancelled shows that had disabilities, but the only one I could say for sure was actually played by an actor with a disability was Corky on “Life Goes On” (played by a young man with Down’s Syndrome).

Movies are easier. I can think of lots of movies in which actors without disabilities play characters with disabilities: Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Juliet Lewis in “The Other Sister”, Sean Penn in “I Am Sam”, Gary Sinise in “Forrest Gump”…and that’s just off the top of my head.

Davis did his research thoroughly, though:

“The facts are that there are about 600 repeating characters in prime-time television, but only six characters are disabled; only one disabled actor plays any of those roles — even though disabled people make up almost 20 percent of the population. In most films, there will be no disabled actors, and when there is a disabled character, it almost always will be played by a non-disabled actor.”

Davis compares it to white men doing blackface, in the process taking away roles from actors with disabilities that really want a career in acting. And for those who think that’s going a little too far, consider how true that really is.

Very Few Roles for Actors with Disabilities

I’ve always loved the theatre. I was very involved with my high school’s drama club, I went to musical theatre camp every summer, and I got involved with my community’s little theatre group when they did musicals. I took dance lessons, and some singing lessons. My sister was the same way. Our parents took us to as much theatre as they could afford, because we obviously loved it.

In university, everyone was much better at theatre arts than I was, and I couldn’t get a part in anything. But I still went to see everything that the drama department put on. I took drama courses.

Not long after becoming mobile enough to get around reasonably with my cane in my home community, I went to see a high school production of “Grease”. After it ended, I stayed behind for a bit and walked around on the stage. It suddenly hit me that the only play I’d read that had a character with physical disabilities was “The Glass Menagerie”, and that I probably wouldn’t be performing again.

I started to cry.

Davis’ point is that there aren’t many roles for actors with disabilities, and we don’t need competition with actors who don’t have disabilities for the small number of roles that do exist. I agree. However…

Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful…

…if, as a person with a disability, I could walk with my cane into an audition, do it, and have someone say, “You’re perfect for this part, so now the character uses a cane?”

Uses a wheelchair?

Is hearing-impaired?

Has a guide dog?

Or, conversely, someone with no disabilities auditions for a part where the character has disabilities, but the director likes him or her so much that she decides not give the person disabilities?

It potentially changes the story, yes…but theatre people do that all the time. They switch a character’s gender, or the time period, or the location, to see how it changes the story, and it brings out sides of the play that helps everyone to appreciate it even more. Who’s to say it wouldn’t work for television or movies?

See the person first, not the disability. Very simple.

All That Being Said…

I appreciate Lennard Davis’ “clarion call” to cast actors with disabilities in roles where the character has a disability. Until we get can get to that place where “people first” is truly a fundamental value, it’s a way of showing actors with disabilities that we value their contributions and of getting them more employment in the entertainment community.

Comments are closed

Involuntary Sterilization: Never Again

Several feminist bloggers have recently written about a story out of Tanzania involving the involuntary sterilization of a woman with several children.  As an American doctors helped her to deliver another child, there was a problem with the epidural injection, and the woman stopped


How much is the option to have a child worth to you? How would you feel if someone forcibly took it away?

breathing. The American doctor did chest compressions to save her life. Another doctor performed a tubal ligation, saying, “I think she does not need another baby after this.” The American doctor later called the second doctor’s actions “heroic”

Not Acceptable

When the story broke on the “Femnomics” blog, he defended his stance on the second doctor’s actions by saying that it had to do with realities of life in remote parts of the world and that the sterilization was done with the risks in mind of what could happen if the woman got  pregnant again. But all I could think about was large group of women who were sterilized “for their own good”.

(Read the whole story on the Tanzania sterilization here, plus the American doctor’s defense of his actions, here: http://femonomics.blogspot.com/2011/11/involuntary-sterilization-cowboy.html)

Involuntary Sterilization in North American News

Meanwhile, North Carolina is currently trying to decide how much monetary compensation is owed to the 7600 people that its Eugenics Boards declared should be sterilized involuntarily between 1933 and 1977. According to a recent New York Times articles (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/10/us/redress-weighed-for-forced-sterilizations-in-north-carolina.html?_r=2&pagewanted=2&seid=auto&smid=tw-nytimes), 31 states had such eugenics programs. They were  “an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.” The “feeble-minded”, or people with intellectual disabilities or mental conditions, were often targets.

Not that America has the monopoly on the this. Forced sterilization was widespread in Canadian institutions for decades.  Even after the eugenics argument had fallen from favour, sterilization for women was still favoured as a way to them and the women who support them handle menstruation easily, as birth control, and as a way to protect them from abuse (see http://www.wwda.org.au/steril2.htm for a discussion of this).

Not Enough

North Carolina is currently proposing that the each person that was forcibly sterilized be given $20 000. I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone where I stand on this. There’s a scene in the film “Erin Brockovitch”, which (in case there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t seen it), deals with a lawsuit over a town’s water that’s got a cancer-causing compound in it, courtesy of a very large company. When the lawyers are trying to hammer out a settlement for each citizen that’s been affected, Erin says, (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’d like you to consider what your kidneys mean to you…or your ovaries…or your kid’s health…and times that by a million…and then come back with an offer. Anything else is insulting.”

I think that’s the kind of consideration that’s needed here. These people need to go home and look at their kids’ baby pictures, and think about how they would feel if the choice to mother or father that child was taken away from them without their consent (and quite possibly even their knowledge). And think about just what that sterilization was intended to do. And multiply whatever number they come up by another, substantial number. Then they might be getting close to a reasonable settlement.

And put the laws in place so that this never happens to anyone else again.

Anything else is insulting.




Comments are closed

“Letting” People Be Who They Are

I’m going to talk about intellectual disabilities today, but I’m going to talk about one of my favourite movies: “Little Miss Sunshine”. If you’ve never seen it, intend on seeing it, and don’t want the experience to be totally spoiled for you, you’d best skip today’s entry.

The Hoover Family’s Story

“Little Miss Sunshine” is the     story of the Hoover family’s quest to get 7-year-old Olive across the country in their van to the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Contest. Olive is desperate to win. Not only is it her dream to be a beauty queen, but she wants to please her father, who is consumed with dividing the world into “winners” and “losers”. She also wants to please her grandfather, who choreographed the routine that she’ll perform for the talent portion of the competition and spent many hours practicing it with her.

The men of the family (Dad, the suicidal uncle, the older brother who’s only just recently broken a vow silence that lasted nearly a year) have never seen a child beauty pageant, and are disgusted by what they see in the talent competition before Olive is due to come onstage. They go to the dressing rooms and try to convince Mom that everyone is going to laugh at dumpy Olive, with her waist-length ponytail and her big glasses, and that it’s her job to protect her and stop her from going on.

Mom says, “We can’t take this away from her now. We have to let Olive be Olive.”

“Letting” People Be Who They Are

One day, while watching the movie, those words really stuck with me. They stuck with me all through the scene where Olive goes onstage and, to the family’s horror, they discover that the routine that Olive and Grandpa have worked on in secret for so long is a striptease to “Superfreak”. They stuck with me when Dad leads the family, among boos from the audience, in standing and clapping along with the music in support of Olive, who is having the time of her life onstage, totally oblivious to the fact that pageant officials are madly trying to get her off the stage.

It doesn’t seem quite right to compare Olive to the people with intellectual disabilities that I’ve supported, as she’s a child and I’ve mainly worked with adults. However, like Olive, they’re not always aware when they’re stepping outside the bounds of what is socially appropriate in a given situation, and sometimes they need coaching around that.

But watching the movie that day, I asked myself, who would I have been, if Olive had been an adult with intellectual disabilities with whom I was working? Someone standing up clapping, to let her know that I supported an unconventional decision? Or someone working with pageant officials to get her off the stage?

Do I let people be who they are, or do I coach that out of them in the name of making life “nicer” or “easier” for them or the people around them?

Asking Myself Tough Questions

I don’t think that I do. I may suggest things to think about if I see someone that I support going down a path that I’m relatively sure is going to take them further away from their goals, and I’m concerned that he or she doesn’t understand the potential consequences of his or her actions. I out-and-out say, “That’s breaking the rules; if you keep doing it, you’re going to get in trouble,” if I see that happening. But I suspect that people would say, if anything, that I probably don’t put *enough* emphasis on considering what outcome a chosen course of action may have on others when I speak with people with intellectual disabilities that I support about it. I can see why they’d say this, but I don’t advise people the way I do because I believe that people with any sort of disability should deliberately hurt others in the name of self-determination. I just believe that people with disabilities have the right to self-determination, and that sometimes people in their lives get hurt or angry (often just out of worry) when they insist on it.

Finding The Balance

It seems to be another area where a balance in the way we (as family, friends or workers) offer support is essential. When does protecting an adult with intellectual disabilities or trying to coach them about social appropriateness become repressing who they are and what they’ll get out of growth opportunities? And while some boundaries or appropriateness are obvious…some aren’t. Who are we to decide them for other people? Or to decide that it’s better that people not learn from mistakes?

When do you let a person with intellectual disabilities “be who they are” and when do you try to “fix” who they are? Ideally, I’d say that we never try to “fix”, unless the person has asked for help with changing something.

But I know it’s not that black and white.

Is anything ever black and white?

I will probably write more about this.

For more information on “Little Miss Sunshine”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449059/

Comments are closed

Hooray for Hollywood…?

So there’s good news and bad news from Hollywood this week.

First, the Good News

The good news is that a documentary about people with intellectual disabilities was nominated for an Emmy.  “Monica and David”, an HBO film about two people with Down’s Syndrome who get married, also won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.

This is definitely one I’d like to see.  In my experience, couples where both people have intellectual disabilities are mainly characterized by people without disabilities as “cute” (and not in a “Yeah, they make a cute couple,” way, but the more patronizing “Awwww, isn’t that cute!” way).  Hopefully this film will help to legitimize these adult relationships, where the people involved deal with adult issues and make commitments, in the eyes of society.

And Then, the Bad News

And, on the other end of the spectrum, the producers of “The Change-Up”, a movie released on August 5 starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, have sent shock waves through the disability community. The controversy stems from a bit of dialogue, where Ryan Reynolds’ character observes about Jason Bateman’s character’s twin boys:

“Why aren’t they talking yet? Are they retarded or something?” and then, “I don’t know…this one looks a little Downsy.”

Kudos to the Special Olympics for taking this and absolutely running with it. I remember some uproar about the liberal use of “retard” in “Tropic Thunder” a few years back, and the Special Olympics administrators have obviously had enough of this:


And rightfully so.

You guys know how I feel about this. Even if you don’t agree with me, check out what the Special Olympics blog entry has to say. You may change your mind when you hear what they have to say.

Thank you to Elizabeth McClung  at “Screw Bronze!” (http://elizabethmcclung.blogspot.com/) for putting me on her blog roll.  It’s very generous of her. :)

Comments are closed

Again…time for something completely different…

I went to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” over the week-end.

A Bit of a Review

brain avmI really liked this installment of the “Potter” series (the final one in the series). I’ve been avoiding the films since the third one; there was something about that one that made me really sad. But this one I liked. The performances were very strong, the special effects were well-done, the 3D really enhances it…and, even though I haven’t seen the first part of “The Deathly Hallows”, having read the book several years ago was just enough to keep me from being totally lost in the plot. I missed the significance of a couple of small things, but I never felt absolutely clueless.

It’s not a movie for children who are easily frightened. Lots of snake footage and  and character deaths and things jumping seemingly right at you because of the 3-D.

(Funny story about being startled in movies: For the first year or so after having my stroke, anything that startled me would make my weak arm literally “jump” from wherever it was resting, sometimes right up in the air.  And everyone had to sit on my left in movie theatres because of the way the wheelchair seating is set up. My family must have thought I was either trying to smack someone or going into a seizure.)

Where Are the Wizards With Disabilities?

Back to Harry Potter. It occurred to me as I watched that no one in the wizarding world uses any sort of mobility aid: no wheelchairs, canes, or prosthetic limbs, not even among the Muggle children at Hogwarts. And nothing set up so that a Muggle child with physical disabilities could attend if he or she wanted to:

  • Have to *run* through the wall at the train station to get through
  • Stairs, stairs, stairs galore at Hogwarts
  • No way to participate in Qidditch (presumably a student with disabilities could earn points for the house other ways, though)
I guess that there could be wizarding spells  that might help one overcome the effects of disabilities, even if it’s just for a short time…

Not The Point, Really

The point of integration in schools has always been teaching students without disabilities that the students with disabilities really aren’t that different than they are…about learning to see the person before the disability…about building a community that includes all people, not “fixing” the ones that have something “wrong” with them.
CNN recently calculated (and I have no idea where they came up with this figure) that it would cost $42 000 just in tuition per year to send a child to Hogwarts. Well, if  I’m spending that kind of money to send my kid to a wizarding school, I want he/she to come out a well-rounded wizard, including having access to wizards from other countries, faiths and lifestyles. And I definitely object to keeping otherwise eligible students out of the school just because they have disabilities.
So what say you, J.K. Rowling? Let’s have the answer.




Comments are closed

My Brain AVM Story: “Confront Me If I Don’t Ask For Help”

The title of this post is from a movie called “28 Days”. Sandra Bullock, sentenced to 28 days in an alcohol rehabilitation centre after causing a car accident at her sister’s wedding, is forced to wear a sign saying “Confront Me if I Don’t Ask for Help” on a sign around her neck as penance for breaking the rules. There were days after my brain AVM surgery and the stroke when I probably should have worn a similar sign.

I had a very hard time learning to ask for help after the stroke. And an even harder time learning to accept it.

“I’m Fine. Thank You, Though.”

The word “help” hadn’t come easily for me for a long time. I’d always been fairly private about my affairs, and I’d already lived on my own for a year in university before moving out to BC. I was used to making my own decisions and coming up with my own plans for handling my problems. However, after my brain AVM surgery and stroke, for a couple of years, I was much more dependent on people than I liked. I didn’t have a driver’s license anymore, and in my small town there was no public transportation, so I was basically reliant on my father or taxis for transportation. I got tired extremely quickly, and had trouble doing even the most basic things without assistance. We won’t even get into the limitations imposed on me when I used my wheelchair in public.

When I was recovered enough to move out on my own, I was close enough to town to walk when the weather was nice and the sidewalks were clear (in winter, snow and ice still sometimes make walking unsafe for me). However, even on good walking days, I usually take a cab if I’ve been shopping and have groceries to carry. I can carry a week’s worth of groceries in plastic bags with the handles over my wrist on my good arm, roll a 12-can case of pop up my body and carry it under my elbow on my weak arm, and still get into my apartment, but I can’t pull that off for any sort of distance; sometimes walking home is out of the question.

Watching me carry that many groceries even the short distance from the cab to my apartment building makes the cab drivers, who all know me by now, awfully nervous. So much so that some of them, while they respected my refusal of their offer to help for a while, don’t listen anymore; they’re up and grabbing my bags before I have a chance to object. (Note: There are *very* few people from whom I’ll put up with that sort of thing. There’s only one cab company in town and the drivers see me enough to know when I say, “I’m fine, I just need to get organized” as I drop three things on the ground, I’m probably just brave-facing it and bull-shitting them a bit…so some of them just stopped paying attention to me. It’s actually kind of refreshing when people are willing to call me on unreasonable behaviour in this way.)

“She *Can* be Taught!”

So…it’s taken me a long time to learn that asking for help, or accepting help when it’s offered, is not a sign of weakness or dependency. One of my friends brain avm   says, when I’ve gotten too  stubborn about doing things  “on my own”: “I *know* that  you’re fine doing it by  yourself. But won’t it be easier  if you just let me help?” I think  it’s to my credit that I snarl at  them a little less than I used to  after hearing that.

Nick (name changed) was actually the first  person who brought this issue  up with me. We’d both been  away from Ottawa Rehab Centre for the weekend for visits with family, and we’d both gone to the Chapters book store in the area. I talked about how I’d tried really hard to do as much as I could on my own, even though it was harder to reach the higher shelves in my wheelchair. Nick said had shrugged and said that he’d asked for help when he needed it, and had much more energy to enjoy the book and the time with his family.

Man, I hated it when Nick was right.

Comments are closed

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Just for a bit of a change of pace, let’s discuss one of my favourite movies: Return of the Jedi.

Yes, Return of the Jedi

I can just see my friends cringing at the fact that I’ve found a way to work Star Wars even into my disabilities blog, but I promise that I can do it legitimately. It’s not even that difficult.

Have you ever thought about the fact that the two people around whom Return of the Jedi basically revolves both have major disabilities? Other characters play significant roles, of course. But in the end, the fate of the galaxy comes down to a man breathing through a respirator and a man with a prosthetic arm duking it out Jedi-style in the Death Star’s throne room.

(For those who have forgotten, or never cared to know, Darth Vader chopped off Luke Skywalker’s forearm during a fight in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke wore a prosthetic arm from that point on; it never seems to affect how he functions or anyone else’s perception of him. In fact, he does some *awesome* lightsaber work in “Return of the Jedi”.)

I admit it. I’m a Star Wars nerd. You have no idea how excited I was when this idea that Vader and Skywalker had major disabilities in Return of the Jedi occurred to me.

Hollywood Stereotypes of People with Disabilities

It’s interesting in Vader especially. There’s a tendency in Hollywood to stereotype people with disabilities as good and noble, courageous, empathethic (and, especially for people with intellectual disabilities, childlike and innocent). Darth Vader is none of those things. Luke finds good in him him eventually…but one of our first exposures to Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movie involves him almost killing an employee who disagree with him. I wonder if we’re maybe also, at least in part, so fascinated by the Dr. Gregory House character on FOX’s “House” because he has physical disabilities and yet is such an obviously miserable person; he also goes against the stereotype.

Think about some of the portrayals of people with disabilities that you’ve seen in the movies and on television. Are they well-rounded characters?  Or stereotypical?

I promise not to talk about Star Wars again for a while…


Comments are closed

Someone In There

I watched “Awakenings” this weekend, which is a movie about people with multiple and profound disabilities. It’s one of my favourites, though not one I watch very often.


“Awakenings” tells the story of Dr. Malcolm Sayer (based on Dr. Oliver Sacks) and the success of his idea to administer the drug L-Dopa to a group of people that had survived encephalitis. The people in question were hospitalized for essentially being “living statues” – unable to move or communicate, unresponsive to most stimuli, and assumed to lack capacity to respond to the world on even the most basic level. High dosages of L-Dopa caused an “awakening” in these “statues”, bringing them back (albeit briefly) to a place where they could interact fully with the world again.

“Feed and Water Them”

I know from reading reviews of “Awakenings” (the movie) that the science behind it is representative of what went on in Sacks’ actual experiments. That’s interesting, but it’s not what was has me thinking that I would like to read Sacks’ account of his work (also called “Awakenings”); I’m more interested to see if his motivation for starting work with  these patients was the same as the Sayers character’s in the movie. Sayers, played by Robin Williams, observed signs in the “statues” that convinced him that there were people inside them, despite their profound disabilities, that could be reached: they caught objects, they exhibited purposeful behaviour, they responded to music (but each one to a different type of music) and to touch from others. No one had ever noticed before, because no one had taken the time to try to see if there was a way to reach these people.

“We call this ‘The Garden’” an orderly explains to Sayer about the ward on which his patients reside. “Because all we do is feed and water them.” Everybody, even the doctor who had first identified encephalitis as the cause of the disabilities (Dr. Peter Ingram, in the movie), figured that there were no longer people in those bodies to reach. Sadly, I still see the “feed and water” perception about people with profound disabilities from time to time.

I’ve spent the better part of an hour now looking for a website that I found just after the last time I watched “Awakenings”, several years ago. I haven’t been able to find it, but I remember being very moved by it.  The young woman who wrote it had lived with profound disabilities and been unable to communicate for over half her life, and then become able to; her thoughts about how frustrating it had been to live in a world where everyone assumed that she was just an empty body with no awareness of her surroundings were eye-opening and heart-breaking.

Connecting with People with Profound Disabilities

I absolutely believe that even if all evidence is to the contrary, we have to assume that people are “in there”, and that it’s incumbent on us to, as much as possible, to figure out how people communicate and how to communicate with them. I don’t know any people with the specific brain damage that the people in “Awakenings” lived with, but I know plenty of people with profound disabilities that are totally reliant on others for their care, that can’t coordinate their limbs to the point where they can propel themselves in a wheelchair or reposition if uncomfortable, and don’t communicate in any traditional way. I’ve had discussions with people (discussions that have broken my heart) who don’t believe that people living with profound disabilities should have been allowed to live at birth.

The thing is, people with profound disabilities *do* communicate; I’ve worked with several of them, and I’ve seen it. One used to purse her lips suddenly as I helped her to eat, which I took to mean, “No more.” Another cried when certain types of music were played around him. And Frances, who I called “my dancer”, loved to sit on the couch in her family’s living room and stretch her long, graceful arms over her outstretched legs. She’d move her arms forward, and open them up, and turn her torso to stretch further…bring her arms together again and peek at me from underneath one of them, smiling widely. Sometimes I’d hold her hands as she moved, so that we did a dance together.

She loved to move like this; she didn’t even need music. I loved watching her.

Assume Someone is “In There”

In “Awakenings”, the Peter Ingram character says that the virus that had turned Sayers’ patients into statues “did not spare their higher faculties”. When Sayers asked him how he knew this, Ingram says, “Because the alternative is unthinkable.”

It’s more “unthinkable” *not* to consider the alternative, and potentially leave a person who wants to engage with the world without the opportunity to do so…when it may be entirely possible for us to help facilitate that engagement. This is one time when it’s *always* okay to assume – assume that someone’s “in there”, and that there’s a way to reach them.

Rent “Awakenings”.  It’s a great movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099077/

Comments are closed

Stop Copying Plugin made by VLC Media Player