Don’t Look to the Movies to Learn About Disability


Disabled films, it seems, are intended either to win Oscars or to jerk tears, not to embrace the disabled community.

The next time you meet a disabled person, throw the films you’ve watched about them out the window and discuss film itself, free of ability.

By Kristen Lopez

Like a lot of girls growing up in the 1990s, I wanted to be just like Cher Horowitz in Clueless. There were obvious barriers: We can’t all live like protagonists in a romantic comedy, and I certainly didn’t pass my teenage years in a mansion in Beverly Hills or possess a remarkable computer program that picked out my clothes. But as a teen girl with disabilities, the differences between my life and Cher’s were particularly pointed. I have brittle bone disease and get around in a wheelchair, which means that even some of the more realistic trappings of her life are unattainable to me. I really wanted to drive a “loqued out Jeep” like Cher when I turned 16, for instance, but that wasn’t exactly realistic — her white Wrangler didn’t have a door, and it certainly wasn’t big enough to fit my best buds and my wheelchair at once.


Most of the characters I’ve laughed at, cried for, and identified with at the movies have possessed different abilities than I do. That should come as no surprise, given how few disabled characters appear in movies in the first place: Though 19 to 20 percent of the American population has a disability, the proportion of disabled characters in cinema “hovers at around 1 percent,”according to Lawrence Carter-Long, a public affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability. What characters do exist are often archetypal and, usually, buzzkills—in his 1991 study, disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt identified 10 major tropes in particular, including a person who is “non-sexual,” “pitiable and pathetic,” or an object of “curiosity or violence.”


As a film critic for the past 10 years, I’ve nevertheless often fielded questions about how I identify with these disabled types at the movies. This kind of curiosity is often well-intentioned, but it operates on an erroneous presumption. Just because I’m disabled, and that movie character you know is, too, doesn’t mean we share anything in common. Nor does it mean that the character in question has insight to give about the real experience of being disabled. Films are works meant to entertain and unite us, but they aren’t the gospel truth; films about disability, in particular, aim less for authenticity than commercial potential. As a disabled person who feels deeply about the movies — I began writing film criticism because of that — I haven’t formed abiding connections with most characters who have disabled characteristics, despite our surface-level similarities.


As a kid, the first disabled characters I remember seeing at the movies weren’t encouraging or inspiring for me—they were just plain scary.

Consider the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. As fantasy characters, the Munchkins’ diminutive statures indicate who they are in Oz, rather than in the real world. Nevertheless, the Munchkins have long been associated with disability in pop culture. Robert Bogdan includes a section on the Munchkins and the disabled typecasting they represent — “characters whom a viewer cannot take seriously” — in his book Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric. Personally, I’ve been asked numerous times if I have dwarfism, and have even been compared specifically to the Munchkins: A few years ago in a mall bathroom, when a small child asked her mother what was “wrong” with me, her mother replied that I was “special,” like the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.


Though dwarves have, as Bogdan writes, historically provided comic relief in Hollywood movies, as a kid I took the Munchkins very seriously. Watching The Wizard of Oz was the first time I remember feeling frightened by the concept of disability.

While I’m on the milder end of my disability’s spectrum, it comes with its own blend of deformities. When I watched the Munchkins as a child, I first began to fear these long-term ramifications of brittle bones. With their shellacked hair and make-up, coupled with their oddly lock-step kicks, the Lollipop Guild seemed like a cartoonish and over-the-top exaggeration of my own disability. Though deformities are generally fixed before puberty, improperly healed fractures can result in similar complications late in life, and despite the fact that I’ve had surgeries and other real-life complications, it was the Munchkins, dancing in their candy-coated dreamscape, that gave me nightmares.


Years later, Zelda from Pet Sematary, who suffers from spinal meningitis, inspired a similar momentary crisis. The mangled, deformed sister of the matriarch at the center of the film’s events, one who goes mad and eventually haunts her sister, Zelda is a chilling character in general. But Zelda was especially horrifying to an impressionable, disabled young film viewer like myself. Checking up on WebMD after a screening, I learned that scoliosis is common in patients like me; that knowledge, paired with memories of Zelda’s cinematically bent and broken back, left me shaken by the prospect that I, too, could be a Zelda one day.


Of course, these were all pretty juvenile fears. Growing up as a disabled film viewer, I quickly developed a healthy conception of the difference between the movies and real life. I couldn’t emulate Cher and Dionne’s trek onto the freeway in Clueless until 10 years after I turned 16 because my high school didn’t offer behind-the-wheel driver’s education to the disabled, for instance, and my dream of recreating Claire Danes’ angel costume from Romeo + Julietwas complicated by the fact that wings that big wouldn’t fit the width of my wheelchair. I learned early on that the movie characters I loved weren’t necessarily the movie characters that I had much in common with.


That I couldn’t exactly re-create the lives of my cinematic heroes didn’t mean I identified any less with Danes or Ringwald — or any more with disabled characters. We all, at some point in our lives, fail to perfectly emulate our heroes, an experience that doesn’t necessarily diminish our interest in them.


It’s all too easy to forget that aspect of our collective cinephilia, however, when movies reduce a community to a few token characters. When Savedcame out in 2004, one friend told me that I should dress like Macaulay Culkin’s character, Roland, does for Halloween and be a rollerskate (in the film, Culkin’s character also uses a wheelchair). I’m still unsure whether the comment was meant in jest; I’ve never viewed my wheelchair as anything other than a conveyance to get from one place to another.


When M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was released in 2000, it became one of the few movies to ever represent my disability, osteogenesis imperfecta. After its release, the movie came up in conversations with friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers alike. “Oh, like Samuel L. Jackson inUnbreakable?” I heard often, after sharing the name of my disability. (Despite the disdain with which other critics treat the director now, people still mention the film when they talk to me.)


Friends and strangers aren’t rude to bring up disabled characters in conversation. It can be discomfiting, though, when able-bodied people assume these movies harbor some kind of anthropological truth. These pictures are, to be sure, very strategic releases. A 2008 British studyconducted by the BFI and UKFC saw “40% of respondents thought there were too few films about disabled people.” The majority of films in this small genre either see their release during awards season (from 1989’s My Left Foot to 2014’s The Theory of Everything) or are general audience melodramas in the vein of Nicholas Sparks movies (like 2012’s Rust and Bone or this year’s Me Before You). Disabled films, it seems, are intended either to win Oscars or to jerk tears, not to embrace the disabled community.


We all, at some point in our lives, fail to perfectly emulate our heroes, an experience that doesn’t necessarily diminish our interest in them.

Of course, as a critic, I’ve also been fortunate to discover great movies that give me hope that cinema about disability is improving, even consulting the disabled community. Last year’s Becoming Bulletproof, a documentary about a camp for disabled actors was one such film. Not only did it lift the veil regarding Hollywood’s most irritating element for disabled film viewers — actors who aren’t disabled playing said characters — it also explored how disabled people are interested in proper representation outside of the sad tales of woe about the “perils” of disability.


The horror genre has also admirably portrayed disability in recent years. Horror has been known to transform victimized and traumatized characters into warriors with newfound agency, and recent pictures like Hush and Curse of Chucky are no different. These films have placed disabled women in the driver’s seat, not only enabling them to save themselves when the evil menace arrives, but also to live lives free of despair before. Neither film exploits their protagonists’ disabilities as a means of amplifying their victimhood as stalked characters. Rather, they adapt them to the situations at hand, acknowledging these characters’ disabilities, and incorporating them as elements that can help to aid in their survival.


The growing body of horror movies that address disability reveals the extent to which Hollywood characterizations are not fact. As someone confined to a wheelchair, I’ve never had to battle a vengeful stalker or outwit a possessed doll. Few people have; but that hasn’t stopped the horror genre from being one of the most lucrative in the business. No matter our abilities or experiences, film viewers identify with a multitude of characters. We may never be able to emulate their exact circumstances — but the fantasy, and the transcendent ways we connect with them, is part of the appeal.


Part of me still wishes I was Cher from Clueless. But I wasn’t alone: We all failed to be Cher, either by lacking her family’s money or her impossibly straight, blonde hair. Cher’s life was a fantasy, and a shared interest in that fiction was what unified those of us who loved her, no matter our abilities. Take it from me: If you want to understand some small microcosm of a disabled person’s life, throw the films you’ve watched about them out the window. Discuss film itself, free of ability. You may be surprised to discover you have more in common than you think.


Why Actors With Disabilities Need To Be Part Of The Diversity Discussion

Actor Danny Woodburn ("Seinfeld," Watchmen") says it's time to break the stigma through storytelling.


Actors With Disabilities Are Ready, Willing and Able to Take More Roles


JUNE 29, 2016

Have you ever been hit?” a man named John asks his caregiver in “Cost of Living,” a new play by Martyna Majok. “That’s what it’s like,” he continues. “Like people hitting me from beneath my skin.”

John, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, has cerebral palsy. So does Gregg Mozgala, who portrays him in this Williamstown Theater Festival production running through July 10. Ani, another character, is played by Katy Sullivan, a professional actress who is a Paralympic medalist. Their casting — in a high-profile production that will end up at the Manhattan Theater Club — is a visible sign of change when it comes to performers with disabilities, who rarely appear onstage, even as stories of disability offer rich and, yes, prize-generating material for actors.

Ms. Sullivan, who was born without lower legs, doesn’t believe that able-bodied performers should be prevented from playing the disabled. She sees acting as “putting on someone else’s soul, putting on someone else’s life experiences and trying to be truthful about them, whether you’re disabled or not.” Still, she noted, “Using performers with disabilities brings a layer of authenticity that you don’t have to go searching for.”

The Deaf West Theater production of “Spring Awakening,” which earned enthusiastic reviews when it played on Broadway last season, may have excited new interest in casting actors with disabilities. The recently announced Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” will co-star Madison Ferris, an actress who uses a wheelchair, as Laura Wingfield. “I Was Most Alive With You,” which just ran at the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, was written by Craig Lucas expressly for the deaf actor Russell Harvard.

This is not exactly business as usual. The past several Broadway seasons have included shows like “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Richard III,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Elephant Man,” “Side Show” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” In these plays and musicals, able-bodied actors played characters with physical or cognitive disabilities. Other recent “Glass Menagerie” revivals have cast actresses who can leave Laura’s limp at the stage door. (Representatives for the coming production declined to comment on its casting.)

Recent conversations around this issue, in film and television as well as in theater, have become more contentious, with comparisons often drawn to traditions of blackface. As the journalist Frances Ryan wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian last year, “Perhaps it is time to think before we next applaud ‘cripping up.’ Disabled people’s lives are more than something for non-disabled actors to play at.”

Or, as Howard Sherman, the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, put it: “Playing someone with a disability should not be considered a talent or a skill for nondisabled actors. It should be considered taking a job away from someone with the unique life experiences to portray that role.”

The language around these issues is also fraught. If “disabled” remains the standard term, some artists and activists resist its connotation of impairment. (Many who are deaf would argue against deafness being construed as a disability, for example.) The term “differently abled” is a common alternative, though some prefer more individual vocabulary.

Ali Stroker, second from left, in “Spring Awakening.” 

Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


Ali Stroker, the “Spring Awakening” performer who was said to be the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway, occasionally heard discouraging words.

Ms. Stroker, who said she was also the first actor in a wheelchair to graduate from New York University’s rigorous theater training program, recalled a casting director telling her, “This is going to be very hard for you.”

“Perfect,” Ms. Stroker said. “My life has been hard. I don’t like easy things.”

She added: “My experience of having a disability my entire life was perfect training for this industry. I’m used to hearing no. I’m used to being creative when someone has closed a door.”

But how many doors are open even now? With the exception of theaters like Deaf West, Theater Breaking Through Barriers and the Apothetae (founded by Mr. Mozgala) — created in part to provide opportunities for artists with disabilities — and companies like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has committed to integrating disabled actors, most able-bodied roles go to able-bodied actors.

And many disabled roles still go to able-bodied actors, too. Sometimes this is necessary, as in roles that show gradual deterioration or unexpected recovery, or roles that call for a rare physical type, like the conjoined twins of “Side Show.” Sometimes it isn’t.

There has been controversy, for example, regarding the casting of Christopher in “Curious Incident,” a young man whose behavior places him on the autism spectrum. Some have used social media to pressure the producers to make auditions more accessible and welcoming to autistic actors. As the actor Mickey Rowe wrote in an email, “All too often we learn about autism from non-autistic people instead of going straight to the source.”

Mr. Harvard, a deaf actor often cast in deaf roles, appears the exception. In addition to his theater work, which included a starring part in Nina Raine’s widely produced “Tribes,” he has significant film credits and was prominently featured in the first season of the “Fargo” TV series. But even he has had difficulty finding parts.

“How many roles are there out there that incorporate ASL?” he wrote in an email message. “The opportunities are rare.” The idea that hearing actors might be cast in deaf roles affronts him. “If someone were to make a movie about my life and cast a hearing actor to play me …” He couldn’t complete the sentence.

When the roles are available, producers, directors and casting directors may have to search harder for disabled actors. Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director at Williamstown, agreed that it took extra work to assemble a pool of possible stars for “Cost of Living.”

Ms. Majok’s script stipulates that John and Ani be played by disabled performers; Mr. Mozgala, who helped Ms. Majok develop the play (the description of cerebral palsy as an internal fistfight is his configuration), was a sure thing. But Williamstown had to do a rigorous search to find Ani.

“Our intense process yielded absolutely magical results,” Ms. Greenfield said. (Manhattan Theater Club has yet to confirm casting for the spring production, but producers said they would honor Ms. Majok’s stipulation.)

Unlike her character, Ms. Sullivan is not paralyzed but rather runs record-setting sprints on prosthetic limbs. Conveying paralysis requires acting; maneuvering without prosthetics contributed to her understanding of the character.

“It helps me get to a place of vulnerability, because that’s not how I live my life,” she said. “I tend to wear my prosthetics wherever I go, and they make me feel a certain confidence. Taking those off, in some ways, is like being naked.”

It remains to be seen whether the recent casting of disabled actors marks a temporary uptick or a more lasting trend. Though D. J. Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West, believes that “Spring Awakening” showed audiences the evocative language and gestures of deaf actors, “My cynical side, however, reminds me that the collective memory is short,” he wrote by email.

Mr. Mozgala hopes that artists themselves will create opportunities. His company, the Apothetae, has commissioned playwrights with this aim. “My community, and the history of disabled people, is fascinating,” he said. “Me just walking across the street — there’s something dramatic going on.”

Correction: July 1, 2016 

An article on Thursday about the use of actors with disabilities to portray disabled characters referred incorrectly to the character played by Katy Sullivan, who was born without lower legs, in “Cost of Living” at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The character, Ani, is paralyzed; it is not the case she is not paralyzed.


Ali Stroker, second from left, in “Spring Awakening.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times - 5 girls on stage, one of them in a wheelchair.


Inspires Inclusion Revolution

Published on January 16, 2016

​Kahshanna Evans

Brazilian-born writer, actress, and activist Tathiana Piancastelli is at the heart of the 2016 inclusion revolution after being nominated for a 2016 Brazilian International Press Award for Apple of My Eye (AOME), also known as Menina dos Meus Olhos.

AOME is the first professionally-produced multimedia physical theater piece written by a playwright with Down syndrome. AOME has received interest from UNICEF about the play and is slated to tour Brazil and Europe in 2016.


AOME director Debora Balardini, who first discovered the play, has led an ensemble comprised of the Nettles Artists Collective (NAC) members, a group she co-founded with her business partner, Sandie Luna. Sandie Luna conceptualized Tathiana’s work for AOME and also has a lead role. Debora and Sandie, longtime friends, are also the co-founders of PUNTO and are joined by Duke York, a third co-founder equally as involved in the success of programs that support original work. The two, joined by a great supportive ensemble and Piancastelli & Heiderich Productions, were largely responsible for shaping the original work into the insightful multimedia physical theater piece it has become.


PUNTO, which is a for-profit, mission-based event and performance haven, is located in Midtown West. PUNTO has been a creative home to Tathiana and NAC, its resident artist group, during the developmental stages of AOME. PUNTO embraced NAC in 2015 for a sold-out preview of the play before it headed to the International Hispanic Theater Festival (IHTF Miami).  


Time lapse tableaus of Tathiana’s dreamscape invoke universal themes that touch all of our lives; we all have lessons in love. Tathiana’s work makes a statement about the sweetness and misery of love that we discover when we mistake it for slavery and ownership. Lead actors also nominated include Andressa Furletti and Caca Macedoalthough the deviant and dark performance of actor Ibsen Santos (Toto), which portrays Toto’s malicious and bizarre obsession through a well-choreographed sequence, was artful, macabre, and memorable.