Disability on the big screen

Think about your all-time favourite movies and TV shows. Although everyone’s list of totally binge-worthy series and on-repeat films looks different, they all share something in common. Whether it’s an action-packed blockbuster or a loved-up rom-com, the reason we fall for particular movies or TV shows is that we connect with the story, characters or themes.

Research tells us that empathy and sympathy play a huge role in the way we connect with the things we see on our screens. According to social psychologists, empathy allows us to experience another person’s feelings, or at least what we think the other person is going through. Empathy then leads to sympathy, or the ability to understand what the person is going through. In other words, we connect with them on an emotional level, as we would with a friend or ourselves.

It’s super important to see people who look and feel like us when we turn on the screen. In the past, a lack of disability representation has made this difficult for some of us. But in recent years, we’ve seen a shift towards more inclusive and representative content. We may still have some progress to make, but there are a growing number of movies out there for people from all walks of life to connect with. After flicking back through the years, here are three flicks to get you started!

Peanut Butter Falcon

There’s a reason Peanut Butter Falcon was the highest-grossing independent film of 2019—it ticks every box. The movie stars Zack Gottsegen, an actor with Down’s syndrome. He plays a man with Down’s syndrome who escapes his care home to follow his dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. While it sounds like the typically feel-good movie on the surface, the film has attracted universal attention for bucking the trend.

Unlike many movies exploring disability, Peanut Butter Falcon subverts many of the common stereotypes that we see. For starters, it’s one of the very few movies that didn’t cast a non-disabled actor in the role of a disabled character. This casting champions the disabled arts community and also results in a truly authentic and genuine portrayal of life with a disability.

Hollywood also has a track record for brushing over small details and painting disabled characters with too broad a brush in the name of inclusion or creating an ‘uplifting’ story for able-bodied audiences to enjoy. From the mannerisms and complaints to Zack’s behaviours and interests, the film offers an authentic representation of life with Down’s syndrome—including an equal mix of the challenges, hurdles, wins and achievements.

Stranger Things

Fans of the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things are enthralled by battles between the residents of Hawkins, Indiana and creatures from the Upside Down. The five-person gang of middle-schoolers leading the charge against the otherworldly monsters won hearts across the world with their day-saving antics, but many viewers had a particular soft spot for Dustin.

In the show, Dustin is teased for his lisp – an all-too-real experience for the American teen. Dustin’s lisp is caused by a congenital disorder that affects his teeth, jaw and other bone structures throughout the body. Although it’s written into his character, the disorder does not define Dustin at all, as the show’s creators chose to leave it unexplained.

Besides the bullying throughout all three seasons, Dustin’s disability does not separate him from his peers. He is just another protagonist along with his non-disabled friends, and he engages in the same adventures as them. And if that’s not what the world needs to see, I’m not sure what is.

50 First Dates

50 First Dates has been a favourite in families across the world since it debuted in 2004. The film is a spin on the ‘Groundhog Day’ notion of a day that keeps repeating itself. This time, though, the recycling takes place entirely inside the mind of Lucy Whitemore, played by Drew Barrymore, who was in an accident that caused short-term memory loss that means her memories are wiped clean every night. After meeting her in a diner, Henry Roth, played by Adam Sandler, embarks on a lifetime of making Lucy fall in love with him again every day.

While some aspects of the movie are slightly unrealistic, it’s a light-hearteded and easy-to-love romantic comedy. The storyline skips over many of the more technical medical aspects of Lucy’s condition but offers an uplifting sense of hope for viewers. Lucy’s ability to overcome her daily struggles, find love and reach many of the socially accepted normal milestones of Western life makes 50 First Dates exactly that—normal.

Niamh Sullivan is a 22-year-old ocean loving and solar powered storyteller. When she’s not chasing her latest yarn as a TV reporter, you’ll find her attempting to catch waves on her malibu or planning her next backpacking adventure.
Don’t take it personally if Niamh forgets your name or stands you up in a coffee shop, two years of chemotherapy treatment and time spent in a coma means her memory is worse than a goldfish. This brain injury may mean she struggles to retain any short-term memories but it’s a good excuse to get out of washing the dishes.

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