As I write this, it is the eve of the 2017 Academy Awards. Tomorrow we will see who wins (and by the time this post is published, it will be time for Monday morning analysis, the day after the show). Naturally, disabilities and the Oscars are on my mind.
This year four of the Best Picture nominees have a disability related sub-plot or theme.“Arrival,” the science-fiction film which deals with aliens and, more broadly, how the very ways we cope with outsiders lead to drastically different outcomes, features a woman with a child who has cancer. “Manchester by the Sea” touches upon addiction and mental health. “Moonlight” also treats the topic of drug addiction.
“Fences,” the fourth nominated film, features an important character and storyline centering upon disability. The brother of the lead character, Troy Maxson (played by Denzel Washington), is Gabe Maxson (played by Mykelti Williamson), a veteran with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Gabe is taken advantage of within an unfair system and institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital.
Also worth mentioning on the subject of disabilities and the Oscars in this year’s crop of films are “Finding Dory” and “Life, Animated.” Whatever you think about watching animated Disney films, “Finding Dory portrayed a disabled character in a positive light, and did not depict the character needing to “rise above” or fix her disability. It was the top grossing film at the domestic box office, which seems to indicate that there is a real market for positive portrayals of disability.
(This shouldn’t be a mystery to Hollywood. By most estimates almost 20 percent of people have at least one disability, and we are almost never portrayed on the silver screen. We are hungry for great plots that actually include us.)
“Life, Animated,” nominated in the full-length documentary category, is a film about Owen, a child with autism. The film tell’s Owen’s story, focusing on how he went from a nonverbal childhood to connecting and communicating with his father through Disney animated movies.
The presence of these themes and sub-plots is most welcome. However, it is still notable that in none of these works was a character portrayed by an actor with disabilities. Actually, to be clear, what is notable is that despite so much progress in other areas, non-disabled actors portray these characters almost all of the time, both on television and in the movies—and that this is still socially acceptable.
The problem with this is that actors who merely mimic people with disabilities, or anyone from any minority group, perpetuate the group’s absence from the screen. They take the role from an actor who really is a member of the minority group, doing violence to the notion of inclusion. This practice also sends a strong message out into the world: these people are incompetent, even to portray themselves.
This is a serious problem all around. An important Princeton study revealed that people without disabilities see people with disabilities as warm, but do not see us as competent. In a related vein, now more than ever, people with disabilities are far more likely to be unemployed than our non-disabled counterparts, and when we are employed, we make far less money. It’s not a reach to think that people in general, including employers, don’t see people with disabilities as competent and are reluctant to give us a chance.
In other words, the issue of disabilities and the Oscars is about far more than great movies. It’s also about how we think about who people with disabilities are and what we can and cannot do.
I won’t say who I was rooting for this year (if anyone) in terms of the nominees. However, I can tell you that I am more than ready to see more people like me in the running next year.