Everyone knows that a surefire way to get an Oscar nomination is to play someone with a disability.
Before I became a special education teacher, I never gave this a second thought. Some of my favorite movies feature characters with disabilities that were played by non-disabled actors.
Then, I became familiar with the sentiment in the disability community about “nothing about us without us.” It was then that I began to rethink my view about disability representation in TV and film.
But surely a quadriplegic could not play the role of one on the big screen, right? Or how about a person with autism? No autistic person could ever play Raymond Babbitt (from Rain Man) so flawlessly as Dustin Hoffman did. Or what about Claire Danes in the iconic biopic of Temple Grandin? For years, I spoke highly of this film for her accurate portrayal of a person on the autism spectrum. It is this kind of ableist thinking that has permeated our culture for decades.
There are popular films that show the triumphs and challenges of disabled people. There are also lesser-known films that feature actors who actually have disabilities. These actors bring something to the role that a non-disabled person could not.
As educators (especially special education teachers), it is vital for us to see people with disabilities represented in our media.
The following list of films features disabled actors in a prominent role.
This film is about Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man who escapes from the nursing home where he lives to pursue his dream of becoming a wrestler. On the way, he meets up with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is also running away from trouble. Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, shines in this role and is sure to inspire other disabled actors to compete for lead movie roles.
This documentary, from award-winning filmmaker Dan Habib, follows the lives of three adults with intellectual disabilities, Micah, Naieer, and Naomie. Throughout the film, we see what it means for them to navigate high school, college, and employment, all the while challenging the assumptions of what it means to be intelligent.
A medical transport driver named Vic has to change his route due to a road closure. This disrupts his scheduled clients, one of whom is Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a young woman with ALS. As the story moves along, and the van fills up, and the riders become a diverse crosssection of America.
Hearts of Glass follows the turbulent first 15 months of a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse that grows crops while providing meaningful, competitively-paid jobs for people with disabilities called Vertical Harvest. The film elegantly weaves the story of the greenhouse’s launch with the journeys of several employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Keep the Change is a rare film where both of the lead actors are people on the autism spectrum. When David (Brandon Polansky) insults a cop, he is ordered by a judge to attend a community program where he meets Sarah (Samantha Elisofon). After an excursion to the Brooklyn Bridge, their unconventional romance is kindled. While a comedy, this film doesn’t shy from its poignant revelations about relationships.
This documentary, made by Oscar-winning filmmaker Gerardine Wurzburg, follows the travels of disability rights advocates, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette. Both Tracy and Larry speak using a communication device and challenge the attitudes about the intelligence and abilities of people on the autism spectrum.
This screwball comedy, about a man who pretends to be intellectually disabled to rig the upcoming Special Olympics, definitely has its problems. It is worth noting that the film includes about 150 disabled athletes and actors, which is the biggest representation of people with intellectual disabilities ever portrayed in a mainstream movie. Tim Shiver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, also was an Executive Producer for the film.
Murderball is a documentary film about disabled athletes who play wheelchair rugby. It concentrates on the rivalry between the Canadian and U.S. teams before the 2004 Paralympic Games. The film covers more than the game of “Murderball,” it also shows aspects of the professional and private lives of the disabled athletes. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2006.
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