Photo: Disability Representation
In recent years, since the passing of the Hollywood Renaissance, people with disabilities have had more presence in Hollywood than ever before and it could be a new and exciting opportunity. Disability representation is more crucial now than ever, through a powerful medium such as film. It gives the opportunity to educate people about a world outside of their own. We watch movies to see a world not thought possible as we witness character struggles and triumphs that make us identify with them, but what about the people in wheelchairs or the people with mental disabilities that have the potential to share why they are the heroes of their stories? Hollywood has been trying to bring those people into the limelight and is doing a good job, but let’s turn it into a great job.
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Over the years there have been various disabilities on-screen. Who could forget the spine-chilling feeling of not being able to hear your intruder as seen in ‘Hush’ directed by Mike Flanagan. Or the heartfelt story of a young disabled man going on a whirlwind adventure with his caregiver, played by Paul Rudd, across the United States in ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’ directed by Rob Burnett. A personal favorite is watching Kevin Hart be Bryan Cranston’s caregiver in ‘The Upside’. These films offer the audience the opportunity to see what these people of specific disabilities go through in everyday life (minus the intruders). Each of the actors does an incredible job displaying the illusion that they have the disability of the character they are portraying, but in reality, they do not have these disabilities. Fewer than 8% of disabilities shown on screen are represented by someone that does not have a disability, this is significantly lower than statistics on gay and LGBTQ representation on screen.
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Examples of Disability Representation Seen On Screen and How The Authenticity Bring Viewership
There have been many actors/actresses that have disabilities that paved the way for Hollywood to include people with disabilities on camera. Jamie Brewer is one of the biggest pioneers when it comes to disabled representation; she not only enhanced the ratings on FX’s hit show ‘American Horror Story’, directed by Ryan Murphy, she has also been a part of it since its debut in 2011. She is one of the most beloved characters among cast-members and fans alike. Jamie uses her talents to her advantage in season 3 of American Horror Story by portraying Nan, a witch with prominent abilities such as clairvoyance and other powers.
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It can be difficult for actors to experience the traumatic events that happen in their characters’ lives without experiencing them firsthand. The actor’s strategy for portraying their character is by finding someone who acts like that character in real life; we see an example of this in Netflix’s ‘The Movies That Made Us’ season 2 episode 3 – focusing on Forrest Gump. In this episode, Tom Hanks tells the story about how he made his voice sound like Forrest Gump; his strategy was to follow around a young southern boy to mimic his speech pattern and actions to bring Forrest Gump to life. With actors, you truly don’t know what you’re going to get.
Bryan Cranston had a challenge on his hands when he got cast to play a quadriplegic man alongside Kevin Hart in ‘The Upside’ (2017). As a person with a disability, I felt I could connect with Bryan Cranston’s character because of the way he took the time to understand the struggles that come with having to use a wheelchair. It’s my hope to hear how Bryan was able to successfully become this role as I enjoyed watching him crash into things throughout the film, but how did he do it?
A PSA to all actors and actresses that may be playing roles that have disabilities in the future: don’t be afraid to ask a person of that disability what they go through in their everyday lives as they will bring clarity on how to portray the character in a realistic manner while being sensitive to the limitations and struggles that come along with it.
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Instead of training actors to be like their roles, there is another possible way that Hollywood can cast actors to play people with disabilities. Instead of spending precious time making sure the role will be real and believable, casting directors should keep an eye out and cast someone who has that disability. This will eliminate cultural biases and engage the audience further into the story. Bryan Cranston did a phenomenal job playing his role, but was the audience distracted? This type of distraction is something that I like to call Character Psychological Distraction. I define this term as seeing the actor/actress in the film as their hit role instead of the character they are currently playing. In ‘The Upside’, I could not stop smiling because watching Bryan Cranston drive a wheelchair led me to question “Why would Hisenburg need a wheelchair?” It’s the distraction that prevents you from believing that Bryan is actually disabled despite the fact that he is not. Audiences experience this phenomenon in all aspects of film and television.
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If people with disabilities were cast more often, it would open the door to experience a film in a matter that allows the audience to connect with beloved characters. It could even open the door to more exciting films put in a perspective one would not think to look into. The 2022 Oscars was a perfect display of disabled representation when the film ‘CODA’ (2022) took home the Oscar for Best Picture. CODA is an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adult. The film is about a young girl born into a family of parents who are both deaf and she is the only hearing family member. The plot thickens as this girl realizes her passion to be a singer and must contemplate leaving her family, for whom she translates, to pursue her dream. Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin were the two key ingredients that made this film great because they used their everyday struggle to bring light into an amazing story.
That’s how Hollywood should handle it from now on. Congrats on the Oscar Troy Kotsur.
By Noah Spencer
Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.
I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.”
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Growing up as one of Jerry’s kids, Noah Spencer found his passion for the Film and Television industry through the Muscular Dystrophy Association working as the Southern Arizona Ambassador where he resides. He has been a part of numerous local productions that have been broadcasted nationwide, aside from writing for The Hollywood Insider, Noah is a film and television major at the University of Arizona. With Noah’s writing skills, he hopes to bring truth and awareness about how people with disabilities are presented within the industry and hopes to open the door to new opportunities that will change the industry and bring content for audiences and readers to genuinely enjoy and hopefully learn something they will remember for a lifetime after the read. His positive personality and ambition align with The Hollywood Insider’s brand identity while staying away from gossip and slander against others.