Sources for Authentic Portrayal of Life with Disability

The Finishers (2013) is a French drama about a 17-year-old boy who challenges his father to jointly participate in an Ironman race.

By Natasha Abner

If you were paying attention to certain areas of news and social media, you might have noticed that one of the earliest summer blockbusters of 2016 brought with it a storm of controversy. Me Before You, based on Jojo Moyes’ novel of the same name, stars Sam Claflin as Will Traynor, a man who is paralyzed in adulthood after a motorcycle accident. The film drew criticism from across the disability community for its all too typical portrayal of life with disability as a pitiable existence not worth living (spoiler – Will pursues euthanasia in the end) and its casting of a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character, a practice that is (somewhat contentiously) referred to as cripface.

The portrayal of a community in literature and in the arts, including film, is a good metric for how much members of that community are valued as humans. Are they represented as multi-faceted characters with the expected range of relationships, pursuits, and interests? Or are they othered and treated as unidimensional individuals, interchangeable with any other member of the community? For example, in their book, Angels and Outcasts, Trent Batson and Eugene Bergman discuss how Deaf characters are frequently portrayed as simple-minded do-no-wrong characters living on the fringe of society. In the case of disability, this othering also frequently takes the form of a character who is little developed beyond his or her disability and often serves only as a vehicle to showcase the positive traits of a caretaker to whom he or she is beholden. In Me Before You, Will’s only respite from disability is provided by his able-bodied caretaker, Louisa, who is upbeat and selfless without limit.

Antidotes to such representations of disability are, fortunately, becoming increasingly more available. A&E’s Emmy Award winning reality TV show Born This Way follows a group of individuals with Down syndrome and reveals the profound commonalities between everyday life with and without a cognitive disability. Speechless, which aired its pilot episode on NBC September 21, 2016, is a new sitcom about family life with a child with a disability and the struggle to ensure that that child receives the accommodations necessary to fulfill his or her potential and achieve full inclusion. Unlike Me Before You, casting for Speechless purposely sought out a disabled actor, settling on Micah Fowler, who, like his television alter ego, has cerebral palsy. This necessary shift in the representation of disability is driven by “real life“ individuals with disabilities having a say in that representation due to their involvement as actors, directors, writers and so on, reflecting the disability rights movement’s advocacy for integration and self-representation.

For film, ReelAbilities serves as a venue for screening fictional and documentary movies that provide a nuanced and more realistic perspective on life with disability and, as such, “celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience.” Established in New York City in 2007, ReelAbilities had its first satellite festival outside of New York City in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. In the years since, the festival has expanded to provide audiences across the country with access to films that are about individuals with disabilities, many of which are also created by individuals with disabilities. As with other film festivals, actors and creators are frequently in attendance to discuss their films with the audience. Moreover, in addition to film screenings, the festivals also frequently include live artistic and theatrical performances as well as informative presentation and panel discussion events. See below for a list of upcoming ReelAbilities film festivals and notes on programming. Future dates for 2017 are currently in the works in cities across the United States and ReelAbilities actively seeks sponsors as well as hosts for individual film screenings and additional festival sites.

Upcoming ReelAbilities Festivals

Pittsburgh, PA – October 20-November 2, 2016

Now in its fourth year, ReelAbilities Pittsburgh will open its 2016 festival with a screening of the documentary Becoming Bulletproof. Becoming Bulletproof follows a group of mixed ability adults from Zeno Mountain Farm as they create their yearly film camp movie – this year, a classic Hollywood western.


Montclair, NJ – October 30-November 5, 2016

Jointly hosted at Montclair State University and JCC MetroWest, ReelAbilities Montclair will feature a screening of No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie on November 3, 2016. The film, which features a Deaf director and many Deaf cast members, highlights the potential negative consequences when children are made to feel bad about their difference and are raised in environments without access (here, language) or adequate role models.


Houston, TX – February 19-23, 2017

The screening schedule for ReelAbilities Houston is still in development, though the 2016 festival featured accessible arts events as well as inclusive jazz and blues jam band sessions.


New York, NY – March 2-8, 2017

The flagship ReelAbilities festival will be returning to New York City in early 2017 with events across the boroughs and in the surrounding areas. The 2016 festival included a performance by the mixed-ability Heidi Latsky Dance company as well as a discussion with the artistic director, performer and choreographer, Heidi Latsky, whose work was also featured in Lincoln Center Out of Doors in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2015.


Cincinnati, OH – March 9-12, 2017

Though not officially kicking off until March 2017, ReelAbilities Cincinnati is hosting the premier of Patrick’s Day at Esquire Theatre, a fictional film that addresses the complexities of disability (here, mental illness) and romance.


DSA member Natasha Abner teaches and researches sign language linguistics at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. She is a board member and assistant director of Camp Looking Glass.

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