Written by Celestine Fraser, published on 17 April 2023
As with many sectors, the film and TV industries have work to do when it comes to authentic Disability inclusion and representation. According to Diamond’s recent survey of the industry in the UK, Disabled characters make up just 8.2% of characters on-screen, even though 20% of the population has a disability. Behind the camera, representation is even worse, with only 5.8% of offscreen talent being Disabled.
What’s more, Disability representation is rarely authentic: a recent Nielsen study showed that Disabled people are 52% more likely to say that the portrayal of Disabled identities is inaccurate. Too often, Disability representation still relies on harmful stereotypes, “inspiration porn” and non-disabled actors playing Disabled roles – a pervasive phenomenon known as “cripping up.”
Luckily, there are reasons to be hopeful. This year’s Academy Awards were more accessible, with American Sign Language interpreters on the red carpet, and audio description and continued ramp access for all attendees. When the Oscar for Best Live Action Short went to An Irish Goodbye, its lead James Martin became the first person with Down’s Syndrome to win an Academy Award. (Though much discussion remains on how even in such historic moments, non-Disabled people speak for Disabled people.)
Below, we summarize some of the best movies or TV shows from the last five years with authentic Disability representation. From Netflix commissions exploring disability, to recent blockbuster box-office hits and recognition during Award Season, there are certainly signs that the movie and TV industries are beginning to understand Disability inclusion. Here are the movies and TV shows which give us hope for the future of Disability representation on-screen.
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1. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020)
In the few short years since its release, American documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) has quickly become a classic of Disability cinema. Co-written, directed and produced by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, Crip Camp begins in 1971 at Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, at which LeBrecht himself was once a camper. While the summer camp represented a milestone in the teenagers’ coming of age – for many of the campers, it was the first time they had the freedom to drink, flirt and explore their sexuality – the camp also marked the start of their political awakening.
Slowly, these young friendships were mobilized into a movement which famously came to a climax at the Sit-in over Section 104. The protests achieved their purpose and in 1990, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed.
At the center of almost every scene is a young and self-assured Judy Heumann, whose recent passing has left the Disability community in mourning. Though the Disability Rights Movement may have lost its “Mother”, Crip Camp convinces us that Heumann lives on – in our hearts, on our screens and etched into the very fabric of our legislation.
2. Special (2019-2021)
Netflix’s Special is a comedy-drama series based loosely on the life of actor-writer Ryan O’Connell. O’Connell plays Ryan, a gay man with Cerebral Palsy who, after a somewhat arrested development, decides to pursue the life he wants. He begins a new internship, starts dating, makes new friends and moves into his first apartment. There’s only one problem: nobody knows he’s disabled. Afraid of how they might react to finding out that he has Cerebral Palsy, Ryan prefers to tell people that his limp is due to a recent car accident. Although many people with invisible (or “less” visible) disabilities have had the experience of “coming out” as disabled at work or in relationships, this experience is rarely explored onscreen, making the representation in Special particularly meaningful to many.
With episodes of only twenty minutes each, Special is entertaining and easy to binge. But it is also groundbreaking in its honest and authentic exploration of the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Disabled identity.
3. Then Barbara Met Alan (2022)
The recent BBC drama Then Barbara Met Alan is based on the real-life story of Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth, two Disabled cabaret artists who in 1989 met at a gig, fell in love and went on to found D.A.N, the Disabled people’s Direct Action Network. Barbara (played by Ruth Madeley), a comedian, and Alan (Arthur Hughes), a singer-songwriter known by the stage name of Johnny Crescendo, quickly became some of the most prominent campaigners in Britain’s battle for Disability rights.
In the early 1990s, the majority of Disabled people lived in inaccessible housing, faced enormous barriers in the workplace and had no access to public transport. Rather than granting Disabled citizens equal rights by law, the politics of the time encouraged a charity model of disability, where the public was advised to donate to “help” Disabled people through fundraisers like the annual charity TV event, Telethon.
Incensed by Telethon’s patronizing attitude and its harmful representation of the Disabled community, Barbara and Alan decided to protest. So began “Block Telethon,” a series of protests in which an army of Disabled protesters stormed the government area in London’s Westminster, demanding an end to Telethon and equal rights in the law. Eventually, the campaigners’ direct action was successful and in 1995, the UK government passed the Disability Discrimination Act.
Official trailer with subtitles for “Then Barbara Met Alan” from the BBC
4. The L Word: Generation Q (2019-2023)
While The L Word centered on a group of mostly white, cis, middle-class lesbians living in Los Angeles, The L Word: Generation Q is a more inclusive and intersectional update on the original series. Many of the series’ original characters remain, but a whole host of new characters have also been introduced: LGBTQ+ people whose queerness intersects with other parts of their identity, like race, gender or disability.
In 2019, model and actress Jillian Mercado joined the cast as newcomer Maribel Suarez, a charismatic Latina wheelchair-user. Clearly, the casting of Disabled actress Mercado contributed to the character’s authenticity – but the writing, too, is refreshing: Maribel’s disability is neither ignored nor overly emphasized. In fact, her disability only becomes relevant when society makes it so – for example, when she encounters access barriers, or is met by ableist attitudes. She counters with pithy one-liners and a confidence that it is never her body which is to blame: “Don’t act like you’re gonna break me ‘cause you can’t,” she says to her partner Micah during sex.
From the intimate scenes to a storyline about queer parenthood, The L Word: Generation Q provides some rare and radical representation of the life and loves of a young Disabled woman in Los Angeles today.
5. CODA (2021)
CODA is a coming-of-age film about seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) who is a child of Deaf adults (or for short: CODA) and the only hearing member of her family. She uses ASL fluently, acts as the family’s informal interpreter and is immersed every day in Deaf culture. But when she suddenly discovers a passion and talent for singing, the Rossis’ family life is thrown into chaos: why would Ruby want to pursue a vocation that could alienate her mother, father and brother?
First to be cast was Marlee Martin, a Deaf actress who famously won an Academy Award for her performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986). Initially, the lead roles were to be played by hearing actors, but Martin insisted that she would no longer take part unless her on-screen husband and son were played by Deaf actors. The producers agreed, and Deaf actors Daniel Durant and Troy Kotskur were thus cast as Ruby’s brother and father, respectively. In 2021, Kotskur won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, making him the first Deaf man to win an Academy Award.
Though CODA is a crowd-pleaser, which for the most part was received warmly by Deaf and hearing audiences, it has had its critics: some have argued that the narrative is based on the false premise that Deaf people can’t enjoy music, and that the movie was made by and for a majority non-Deaf crew and audience. While CODA represents a milestone in Deaf visibility and representation, there is clearly still a need for a multitude of movies that center Deaf characters and culture.
6. The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a buddy movie about the unlikely friendship between Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a runaway fisherman, and Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a man with Down’s Syndrome who has escaped from an assisted living facility. Both men are on the run, and Zak’s caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), is in hot pursuit. As the two men spend time together on the road, they grow a surprising bond through vulnerable conversations about good and evil, love and loss, as well as their hopes and fears.
Zak is Disabled and Tyler is non-Disabled, but their friendship is mutually supportive and enriching, and continues to challenge the audience on the ways in which Disabled characters are so often written as ‘supercrips’ or heroes to non-Disabled audiences.
Learning disability is still woefully underrepresented in film – and historically, these characters have too often been played by non-Disabled actors. Yet, in The Peanut Butter Falcon, the Disabled lead is center stage – as too was Gottsagen, when in 2020, he became the first person with Down Syndrome to present at the Academy Awards.
7. Rising Phoenix (2020)
Rising Phoenix is a Netflix documentary about the history and legacy of the Paralympic Games. Directed by Peter Ettedgui and Ian Bonhote, the film seamlessly blends a sweeping history of the Paralympics with interviews of today’s most prominent Paralympians.
In typical Netflix fashion, the film combines a glossy production value with an epic soundtrack, as we watch its contributors push themselves to reach the peak of their sporting excellence. The film provides interesting insight into society’s changing perceptions of Disabled people over the last century, and of the Disability community’s ongoing resilience and creativity in the face of ableism.
A highlight of the movie is the closing soundtrack – a hip hop track, also titled Rising Phoenix. To produce the track, the film’s composer Daniel Pemberton worked with three Disabled artists: rapper Georgetragic, MC Toni Hickman, and rapper Keith Jones. The three artists are part of Krip Hop Nation, a global collective of Hip Hop artists with disabilities, founded in 2007 in California by Leroy F. Moore. With rousing lyrics and a hypnotizing drum, the Krip Hop track feels like a masterful fusion of Hip Hop and Disability culture.
8. Sex Education (2019-2021)
In the second season of Sex Education, we are introduced to a new character: Isaac, a wheelchair-user who lives opposite Maeve in the caravan park. He lives with his brother, spends much of his time pining for Maeve’s affection and quickly becomes friends with the other young adults at Moordale. Though he is the only wheelchair-user in a sea of non-Disabled teenagers, he displays neither insecurity nor self-pity: he is wise, confident, and has a deep sense of who he is. He deploys intrusive questions with a dry sense of humor: when he is introduced to a girl at a party whose first question is “Why are you in a wheelchair?”, he replies with characteristic sarcasm, “It was a horrendous incident involving the wind.”
Particularly memorable is a love scene between him and another character, which provides a rare depiction of intimacy between a Disabled and non-Disabled partner. The tender scene has been widely praised as sex-positive and groundbreaking for its honest representation of sex and disability.
It is refreshing that in Sex Education, a young Disabled character like Isaac is represented as a teenager, first and foremost – just like anyone else.
9. A Quiet Place (2018)
The 2018 horror film A Quiet Place tells the story of a family fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic world, where the majority of humans have been killed by creatures who are blind but have an acute sense of hearing. The Abbott family, however, have survived, in part thanks to their use of American Sign Language (ASL). While Deaf representation can sometimes feel tokenistic, in A Quiet Place, Deafness is woven tightly into the fabric of the story.
This authenticity is also due to the casting of Millicent Simmonds, a young Deaf actress, in the role of Regan, who is the Deaf daughter of hearing parents. Deaf consultant Douglas Ridloff taught the cast ASL and an ASL interpreter was available at all times on set. But crucially, the film was also informed by Simmonds’ own insight into Deaf culture and ASL. In one poignant scene in the script in which John Krasinski’s character Lee signs “I love you” to his daughter, Simmonds suggested that the signs be changed instead to “I’ve always loved you,” to allude to the pair’s earlier argument. This subtle change in American Sign Language leads to a significant shift in audience emotion – which is all the evidence we need that casting Deaf or Disabled actors can improve our storytelling.
10. Creed III
Directed by Michael B. Jordan, new sports drama movie Creed III is the third installment in the Creed film series, and the ninth overall in the Rocky franchise, which began in 1976 with its first eponymous film. The new movie stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, a boxing star who must face his childhood friend and former boxing prodigy Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) in a match.
One might not expect a blockbuster sports movie like Creed III to provide such authentic representation of Deaf culture – and yet the film has resonated with the Black Deaf community. Adonis’ daughter Amara is Deaf and is played by young Deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent. Like Davis-Kent, Amara uses American Sign Language (ASL), and throughout the movie, we watch her communicate with her hearing parents in ASL, which is translated into English via open captions.
In early March 2023, Creed III claimed the title of biggest sports movie opening of all time. In just its first weekend, the movie grossed a staggering $58.7million at the North American box office, and another $41.8 million at the box office worldwide. If anyone still needed convincing that Deaf or Disabled representation makes for exciting, commercially-successful movies, then Creed III packs a punch – or two or three.
11. All the Beauty and The Bloodshed
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is the latest documentary film by Academy Award winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour). The film is simultaneously a portrait of the life and art of American photographer Nan Goldin and a gripping account of Goldin’s campaign to takedown the Sackler family – the billionaires behind the drug Oxycontin, which fuelled the opioid epidemic in the United States.
After recovering from her own addiction to Oxycontin, in 2007 Goldin founded the advocacy group P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The documentary is interspersed with interviews with members of P.A.I.N and indeed, many of the most interesting insights come from those with lived experience of addiction.
The film draws poignant parallels between the HIV/ AIDS crisis – which Goldin extensively photographed – and the opioid epidemic of today. When in an interview from the early 1990s, a young writer describes HIV/ AIDS as ‘a taboo disease in this society,’ his words resonate and might equally be applied to addiction, today.
While narratives about addiction can be prone to sensationalize or victim-blame, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is unflinching in its argument: addiction is not a personal failure, but the failure of society to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is a timely reminder of the power of art and activism to make social change.