Several weeks ago, during all the pomp and circumstance of Oscar Sunday, stood actress Selma Blair in her sheer dress carrying a custom-made cane that was covered in patent leather. She posed for photographs before entering the Vanity Fair party. This was her first public appearance since revealing that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. While this may seem like just another glamorous photo-op, this moment was emblematic of something much more profound. This was a convergence of celebrity, fashion, beauty, art and served as an existential act challenging the perception of persons with disabilities by offering a new vision of identity. Hollywood has always been a purveyor of culture and has had a significant global influence. The disability community ne to reexamine its role in the larger culture and seize opportunities to illuminate its value. Hollywood and the media landscape offer a new vocabulary for which they can draw upon using the backdrop of film, television, advertising and other expressions to both challenge the status quo and in fact rebrand the current stereotypes of disability which has been a barrier in establishing a true sense of inclusion and acceptance in the workplace and beyond.
In recent years Hollywood has engaged in telling more stories that reflect the disability experience. From documentary series such as AE Network’s Born This Way, which chronicles seven young adults born with Down syndrome as they go through the arc of their lives experiencing everything from their passions, dreams and friendships to the more intimate details of their romantic relationships. ABC Television has offered the sitcom Speechless, which centers around the life of a high school age boy with Cerebral Palsy and his family dealing with the struggles and triumphs of everyday life all with a sense of humor. Hollywood has also responded to the heightened relevance of autism in our society by producing shows such as Netflix’s dramedy Atypical, the coming of age story of Sam Gardner who is on the autism spectrum and how he navigates through the minutia of everyday life while managing with the social dysfunction of his family.
It is important to note that there is tremendous pushback as far as both the accuracy and portrayal of these characters and more recently acknowledgment of the underrepresentation of actors with disabilities in Hollywood. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, persons with disabilities on television have less than 2% visibility and within the last 800 movies made in Hollywood have scarcely 2.4% screen time. However, what is even more alarming according to Ruderman is that the actors playing the characters with disabilities often don’t have disabilities themselves and site that since 1988, about half of all the best actor Oscars went to men who played characters with disabilities, yet not one of them had the disability for which they played.
While engaging in more authentic and real performances through hiring actors with disabilities is critically important, we must embrace the small successes as well. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, “Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity…It renders them accessible…”
Film and television offer that accessibility by increasing the awareness and understanding of disability issues and the diversity of persons with disabilities and their situations. Hollywood can operate as a true prescription for change to effectively contribute to greater integration of persons with disabilities in all aspects of societal life. Stories in film and television while only a first step is genuinely a movement toward new possibilities. As a society, we must start paying attention to that cultural convergence that happened that Oscar Sunday and embrace it as a beacon toward engaging in the social and economic opportunities for persons with disabilities that lies ahead.