The Academy Awards are here, and they are probably the most anticipated award show of the year. As someone who cares about equal opportunity and social justice, I love when films
are nominated that break negative stereotypes and stigmas.
As a disability activist, I was especially thrilled this year to see James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything earn five nominations, including for best movie and best actor. The movie, based on the life of Stephen Hawking and his then-wife, Jane Wilde, shows the severity of ALS, often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Moviegoers see how Hawking goes from partying with his friends and going bike riding to losing his motor ability at a fast pace. The movie is factual when it comes to showing how severe and quickly the disease progresses. But in focusing on the struggles he endured, the movie glosses over his accomplishments,
Hawking is recognized as one of the most intelligent people in the world – something the movie only briefly addressed. When Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, he was told he would only have two years to live. He surpassed that time span and is still with us today. He never gave up on his dreams and continues to strive forward.
Unfortunately, the film focused on how Hawking’s disease hindered him, even though he has been so successful. It is rare to find movies that feature people with disabilities in a positive light. Too often they are portrayed as a burden and/or someone to pity. This is what needs to change.
Hollywood must work on changing the negative portrayal and stigma attached to people with disabilities and portray them in a more three-dimensional light.
The best way to do that is through more movie characters that realistically portray people with disabilities. The disabilities should be incidental to these roles. Yes, people with disabilities have obstacles they need to overcome, but so does everyone else. People with disabilities are just as flawed as able-bodied people; they have problems at work, with friends and with significant others.
But they also have positive aspects in their life as well such as hobbies, hanging out with family and going to the movies. They have a daily routine can be just like everyone else.
If movies portray a fuller picture of these characters, then viewers would be more able to relate to them. People with disabilities are all around us. So why shouldn’t they be more visible in our movies? Movies aim to be realistic, but how can they when key people are missing from their portrayal of our society?
Scott Jordan Harris, an author and film critic, who has a disability, critiqued the film as follows: “Even if we accept that [Eddie] Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors.”
I understand where Harris is coming from. Having someone portray the struggle of life with ALS without first-hand knowledge of the disease is not very realistic. But by having more movies that represent people with disabilities will be a step in the right direction toward casting more people with disabilities in movies.
Movies play a critical role in society. In addition to their entertainment value, films contribute to the values and ideals that define us and that we transmit to our children. What we see, we feel. And what we feel affects how we act. When the audience is accustomed to seeing an office worker who happens to be blind on the big screen, viewers cannot help but be more accepting of people with disabilities in their lives and workplaces. With simple changes like these in Hollywood, we can be on the right path to breaking the stigma against people with disabilities and portraying them in a more realistic light, whether it is by casting more people with disabilities or by simply having roles that portray them.
The writer is a fellow with Respect Ability, a national advocacy organization for Americans with disabilities.The Academy Awards show will be televised Feb. 22.