Thoughts on Disabilities on TV and Movies

It’s been a while when I decided to collect my thoughts on this issue, but it takes me a while to collect and sort my thoughts. There is so much I want to write and every time I feel as if I’ve left half of my thoughts out in the attempt to write everything down before I forget what I wanted to say. Before moving on to analysing specific amputee characters, I want to somehow summarise my thoughts about the representation of amputees and people with disabilities on TV and film in general. In order to simplify my argumentation, I will use the terms “able-bodied” and “disabled” even though these terms are not free of ambiguities. As mentioned,the percentage of characters with any kind of disability or chronic illness in movies or TV is still very low. An article about the actor Robert David Hall pointed out that even though 19% of Americans have a disability only 0.5% of the words spoken on TV and in movies come from disabled characters. I still need to find statistics for other countries as it would really interest me. But my spontaneous guess is that is probably very similar in other countries. If there happens to be a character with a disability, the illness or disability is most likely at the centre of the entire plot. Whether it is a tragic event or illness that somehow causes an able-bodied character to become “disabled”, a villain with a disability or “disfigurement”, there is barely any character that happens to have a disability and whose disability is not the centre of attention, drama or struggle (sometimes even the centre of laughter and jokes).

What really troubles me is that if the audience happens to see a disabled person (or any minority for that matter) it conveys the image of being special or being a person “of special needs”. Sometimes portraying the lives of people with disabilities and their affiliated able-bodied family/friends as strenuous. Either way, one way or another (and there as many different examples as there are movies) the media give the impression that the disability dominates every aspect of a person. Of course, depending on the disability, it can take up a great portion of a person’s life, but there is so much more to a person than a disability. We have hobbies, we fall in love, we are parents, co-workers, friends and so on. Yes, my disability is a part of me, but not me as a whole. There are many other things and characteristics that define me as a person. Unfortunately, the stereotypical portrayal of characters with disabilities fails to encompass that. Whether we like it or not, but our media consumption shapes us (and especially children and teenager) more than we think. Movies have either the ability to create a stereotype or at least the ability to strengthen it. In other words, if we perceive a stereotype often enough we eventually start to believe it. Consequently, the idea that there is nothing more to a disabled person than the disability continues to strengthen the already existing stigma attached to disabilities.


However, there is one counter-example that comes into my mind. In the TV show CSI – Las Vegas, the coroner Dr. Robbins, played by Robert David Hall, is one of my favourite characters. The character Dr. Robbins is an, apparently, successful coroner that happens to be an amputee. Robbins’s work is at the centre of attention and not the disability. The way other people treat him or interact him are, also, not dominated by the fact that he is an amputee. That alone was something I’ve rarely seen on TV up to that point. What really caught my attention, and among many other things made CSI Las Vegas become one of my favorite TV shows, is the fact that the actor portraying Dr. Robbins is an amputee himself. Mr. Hall lost both legs in a car accident when he was 30 years old. One of the things that always surprised me was that, often times, disabled characters were portrayed by able-bodied actors. When I was younger I always wondered why, sometimes even thinking that there were maybe no (or not enough) disabled actors to fill in those roles. That, of course, is not true. There is for example an casting agency specifically for amputee actors. I have no knowledge how Hollywood works, but my guess is money is key. In other words, it is not so much the talent that matters but a guaranteed success. At least when it comes to the big budged blockbusters. They want a “star” that sells and, apparently, actors with disabilities (or minorities in general) can’t be stars. Again, I don’t know the actual reasons. The point is, however, that it is disappointing. There is this one scenario floating inside my head for a while which I’d love to see someday (one can dream right?). What if, instead of having an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, there is an able-bodied character portrayed by a disabled actor? For example, lets pretend character x is at the beginning of the movie able-bodied and somehow (an accident or illness) becomes disabled. Lets say, character x becomes an amputee. Usually, an able-bodied actor will then, with the help of make-up and special effects turned into a disabled character for the rest of the movie. The usual argumentation is that it is “an acting challenge”. Often, this “acting challenge” is rewarded with some sort of award. Yet, what if we take an actor which is already an amputee and use make-up and special effects to turn that actor into an able-bodied character for the first part of the movie? Wouldn’t that be also an “acting challenge”? With the ever increasing technological progress in special effects (just look at Avatar or The Hobbit), there really is no actual financial excuse for the big budget blockbusters. However, what I’d love to see more are characters on TV and movies such as Dr. Robbins in CSI where the disability is not the dominating aspect of a character. TV shows and movies with disabled characters that portrait disabled people as real humans in all their facets.  

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Disabilities on TV and Movies

  1. i have been very aware of the lack of disabled actors on TV and in movies – disabled characters played by actual disabled people. i wrote a post about it ( i'd even be happy to see wheelers or whatever in ordinary TV commercials. like a person wheeling into a restaurant or store. etc. just ordinary people – who happen to be in wheelchairs – living their lives. let's keep talking it up!


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