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Disabilities on Screen: Representation in Hollywood

Many actors have played the role of a mother, pilot, or doctor. Yet, they are none of those things. However, they convince viewers that they are what they pretend to be. But does the usual way of casting actors hinder inclusive representation? When it comes to disabilities on screen, there’s a lack of portrayal in Hollywood. As well, there is an ongoing debate about whether roles should be given based on representation or acting skills. This article will look at that debate and attempt to break it down.

The Ongoing Debate

There are two arguments for representation in Hollywood.  On one hand, actors who portray disabilities on screen ought to have impairments. Otherwise, it is misrepresentation. On the other hand, actors without disabilities who portray people with disabilities on screen are doing their job. Acting, by its nature, is to pretend you are something you’re not.

The argument becomes, then, whether roles should go to the best actors or actors that have a certain disability?

In the ongoing debate about representation of disabilities in Hollywood, it is impossible to say who is right. Especially if you consider past praised performances of disabilities on screen, such as:

  • Leo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: Hollywood celebrated Leo’s portrayal of a boy with autism and an intellectual disability.
  • Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister: Many say that Lewis’s performance is one of the best portrayals of intellectual disability on-screen of all time.
  • Dwayne Johnson in Skyscraper: Many people applauded Johnson for bringing positive attention to the amputee community.
  • Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
  • Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man
  • Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko

The list of actors playing people with disabilities in renowned roles goes on and on.

How are Disabilities On Screen Portrayed?

Even when people with disabilities are portrayed on-screen, that representation is not always satisfactory to people with disabilities. Typically, the on-screen disability is only used as a plot device. For example, in many comedies, disabilities only appear on-screen as a source of comic relief. Yet, while rare, there are times where the disability is not the main focus. For instance, in the X-men franchise, Charles Xavier’s wheelchair use is not the primary focus of his character’s arc.

Still, times, where the portrayal of disabilities is positive, are rare. In fact, sometimes the portrayal can be harmful. For example, consider the villain trope. Many villains have visible disabilities, such as:

  • Canes
  • Hook arms
  • Eye patches
  • Split personalities
  • Albinism

These portrayals can be harmful to disabled people and in the quest for equality.

The Ringer and Representation

Sometimes good representation of disabilities on screen is found in surprising places. Consider Johnny Knoxville’s (known pest and Hollywood funny guy) film, The Ringer. Knoxville plays a washed-up guy who fakes a disability to cash in and win at the Special Olympics. Sounds offensive, right? On the contrary, it turns out the joke was on Knoxville. The people with impairments in the movie had the last laugh.  In fact, 150 people with disabilities starred in the movie. That’s the most people with disabilities to ever star in a single Hollywood film.

How Representation is Furthering a Movement

The more depiction we see on the big screen, the more accepted the concept of disability becomes. For actors with disabilities, representation is important. It gives them more chances to act on the big screen. As well, it means that actors with disabilities can be cast in roles of characters that are not disabled. Rather than say who’s right or wrong, it’s more about what’s fair. If actors can play people with disabilities, then actors with disabilities can play characters without them. For instance, Leslie Nelson, who is hearing impaired, played a hearing detective in the Naked Gun series. Robert David Hall, who is a double amputee, played a non-amputee doctor on CSI.

There is a push from the disabled community to increase disabilities on screen representation in Hollywood.  Representation promotes positivity and equality. With this in mind, more films should have actors or positive characters with disabilities. This will help people see those with disabilities as real people and promote equality and inclusivity.