What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Disabilities

"The Shape Of Water" isn't the first Oscar-winning film to misrepresent disability.

“The Shape of Water” made history at the 2018 Oscars on Sunday for a number of reasons, including being the first film with a female lead to win an Oscar for Best Picture since “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005. This marks an important and long-overdue milestone. But, as a disabled woman, I could not help but recognize other, less positive similarities between the films: Both “The Shape of Water” and “Million Dollar Babyfeature lead characters with disabilities played by nondisabled actresses, and people in the disabled community have criticized both films for their negative depiction of disability.

Although 56 million people in the U.S., nearly 20 percent of the population, have a disability, it’s rare to see disabled characters in film and television. According to a recent report, just 2.7 percent of the 100 top‐grossing movies of 2016 included characters with disabilities. The overwhelming majority of these characters were male, which is completely in contrast to reality: Pew Research found that women are just as likely as men to have a disability.

Despite people with disabilities making up a significant portion of the United States, they are also rarely portrayed on television. In fact, just 1.8 percent of television characters have disabilities, and a recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actresses and actors.

Given the under-representation of disabled actresses and actors, it should come as no surprise that only four Oscars have been awarded to people with visible disabilities: Harold Russell (1947), Linda Hunt (1984), Marlee Matlin (1987), and Dan Keplinger (1999).

During the 2018 Oscars, people with disabilities live-tweeted the award ceremony using the hashtag #DisTheOscars. Imani Barbarin, the hashtag’s founder, tweeted, “Disability representation matters and it’s time we come together and raise our voices as one.” “The Shape of Water” was chief among their concerns: It is about a nonverbal woman who falls in love with an amphibious creature, who turns the scars on her throat into gills so they can live happily ever after underwater. As HuffPost reporter Elyse Wanshel recently explained,The Shape of Water” conveys the message “if you don’t fit into society, it’s better that you leave.”

“Hollywood can — and must — play an important role in changing how people with disabilities are treated.”

The storyline is not the only problem with “The Shape of Water.” Like far too many films about people with disabilities, this one cast a nondisabled actress, Sally Hawkins, in the lead role.

“Million Dollar Baby” did the same: Hilary Swank played a female boxer who becomes paralyzed and decides to end her life. The advocacy group Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund said the movie “advances the offensive and dangerous message that death is preferable to life with a disability.”

“Million Dollar Baby” and “The Shape of Water” reflect an alarming phenomena. According to the film website Indiewire, “59 nondisabled actors have earned Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters. History suggests that those nominees have nearly a 50 percent shot at a win.”

Of course, “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Shape of Water,” are not the only films that have perpetuated negative views of disability. For example, the 2016 movie “Me Before You” inspired people with disabilities to protest at movie theaters. “Me Before You” is about a man who becomes paralyzed and falls in love with his caregiver. Six months later, he dies by assisted suicide, so he would not be a “burden” to her. That character was also played by an actor without a disability.

Why should nondisabled actresses and actors be able to play disabled characters when we are not afforded similar opportunities? As disabled actress and comedian Maysoon Zayid remarked during her TED talk, “If a person in a wheelchair can’t play Beyoncé, Beyoncé can’t play a person in a wheelchair.”

As a woman with a disability, I am deeply concerned by the under-representation of disabled actresses and actors, as well as the abysmal portrayal of visible disability in most film and television. Representation matters, and it is important that Hollywood finally get it right. Indeed, portraying people with disabilities as deserving only of pity lowers society’s expectations of the disability community, and fosters bias and stereotypes.

People with disabilities already contend with pervasive discrimination. We have persistently low rates of employment and are more likely to live in poverty. People with disabilities, especially disabled people of color, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and experience high rates of police brutality. And from attacks on the Americans with Disabilities Act to attempts to take away our health care, we are facing a government that is threatening many facets of our lives.

Hollywood can — and must — play an important role in changing how people with disabilities are treated. A 2014 study found that movies have the ability to influence how people view things and can change perceptions. Film and television also can break down stereotypes about marginalized communities. Rather than portray people with disabilities as incompetent and deserving of pity and incompetent, Hollywood must show that disability is normal — because it is.

“Murderball,” a 2005 documentary about disabled athletes playing wheelchair rugby, is one of the only movies I have seen in a theatre that I believe accurately depicted the experiences of people like me. Although not an athlete, I could easily relate to many of the topics raised in the family, such as dating and contending with misconceptions about sexuality. More importantly, “Murderball” demonstrated that athletes with disabilities are quite similar to their nondisabled peers: They have an overwhelming drive to win and will stop at nothing to do so. We need more films to normalize disability.

Film and television must finally reflect the rich tapestry of diversity, and it is my sincere hope that this will include people with disabilities. From the Me Too movement to Time’s Up, actresses and actors are increasingly taking on issues of social justice. Now, more than ever, disability rights must be part of these important conversations.

Robyn Powell is a proud disabled woman as well as attorney, scholar and writer.

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