- Incidental Disability
- February 7th, 2011
The discussion of transexuality in film was a spur to some thoughts I was already having about the portrayal of disability in film. There are at least three aspects to the way film deals with disability that we need the media industry to make progress on if we are ever to consider ourselves to be getting equal treatment. Those three points are
1) The use of disabled actors, even in roles not specifically written for disability
2) The portrayal of disability in a realistic and positive manner rather than as inevitably melodramatic tragedy.
3) The portrayal of disability when it isn't fundamental to the plot.
The typical film role isn't going to be broken if you cast a redhead, someone who is ethnically Chinese or so on, you might need to tweak a line or two but that's about it. A lot of roles can even be switched from one sex to another without breaking the fundamentals of the character as written. Looking at that from a slightly different angle, we get the idea that the role is independent of the character's physical aspects, it doesn't matter who you cast, just as it doesn't matter whether the cashier at the bank is a redhead, or the mechanic at your garage French. Take that another step and any random selection of film roles should include a bunch of crips - at 1 in 5 of the population it's difficult to avoid us!
That's what I mean by incidental disability. Disabled people are randomly scattered through the population, they should be randomly scattered through the people we see on film (and I don't mean disabled actors here, but disabled characters irrespective of whether they're being played by a disabled person). But when we do see disabled people in a speaking role, it's very rare that they are there incidentally, almost inevitably they are there because the role is very specifically a disabled one, with disability hooks into the plot. I've been trying to think of counter-examples on and off for a few days now, films or TV with a disabled character in a prominent position in the screenplay where the disability is incidental to the plot, and I have precisely two examples, neither of which is entirely satisfactory.
1) Mathilde in 'A Very Long Engagement' (aka 'Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles'), Audrey Tautou is a young woman trying to trace what really happened to her fiance in the aftermath of WWI. She has restricted mobility from polio, so mostly relies on people coming to her, rather than chasing around the country herself. Polio isn't central to the plot, or even necessary to it, but it does show up rather a lot, which is why I'm not entirely sure it's a good example.
2) Joey Lucas in 'West Wing'. Marlee Matlin almost exclusively plays characters who share her deafness, and Joey Lucas was clearly deaf, but the storylines were about Joey as a political operator, if disability came up then it was President Bartlett's MS, not her deafness, but they did choose to give her an interpreter, so focussing on it visually and in the way she interacted with others, rather than just letting her get on with it.
There must be other examples, but I'm certain it isn't happening anything like as often as it should be!