Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Avatar and other movies with people who have disabilities

A few days ago, we saw Avatar. It is spectacular, breakthrough, breathtaking, spellbinding, adjective etc. It really was that good, aside from the sappy love song at the end.

As I was taking in all that magnificence, I kept thinking about one thing: How great it was that the starring role is about a guy with disabilities. Oh, OK, I also kept thinking how hot Sam Worthington is. He plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex Marine. One of the bazillion special effects in the movie is how believably atrophied they made his legs look.

As I watched Sam, I literally started thinking, "Wow, maybe Max can be in the movies! He's got the looks, the charm! Who cares if he can't really talk!! Bring on The Color Purple, Part 2!" But, sadly, it's rare to find actors with actual handicaps starring in movies or on TV. In the hit TV show Glee, for example, Artie—a character who uses a wheelchair—is played by an able-bodied actor. While I'd like to think to think they could have found a handicapped actor to play the Avatar role, it comes down to who's box office bait and sadly, there aren't any big-name handicapped actors in Hollywood.

Avatar got mixed praise from paraplegics, according to this ABC News/Health article (thanks for telling me about it, Louise). J. Scott Richards, director of research at the Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Center at the University of Alabama, pointed out that Hollywood always depicts extremes when it shows characters with disabilities: "A physically achieving athlete in a wheelchair, or the opposite end of that—someone who is miserable and has a horrible life. I'd much rather see the middle of the road. Where people are just people but they happen to be in a wheelchair." A-men.

I've recently seen a couple of outstanding documentaries about kids with disabilities. First, the amazingly inspiring film Including Samuel, by director Dan Habib.

The movie chronicles his family's life to include their little boy, Samuel—who has cerebral palsy—in every aspect of their lives. Samuel so reminds me of Max.

Then a woman I used to work with told me that her friend, Jo Sittenfeld, had directed a documentary about two families with kids who have autism. It's called Ethan & Jennifer.

I watched it Friday night, and it is a candid, beautifully shot, moving film that any parent of a kid with special needs will appreciate. I loved this line from Ethan's mom: "He is who he is. I don't want people to think our life is a tragedy. But also, I don't want them to think it's no big deal. It is somewhere in the middle." Jo said it would be OK if I passed along my copy, so the first person to request it in a comment gets it (just leave your email, please). If you would like to contact Jo about a screening copy, contact her at

Some other good documentaries about people with disabilities—I haven't seen most of them, I just did a massive Google search:
Best Boy (1979): This film follows the director's mentally-handicapped cousin, who was 52 at the time this was made and still living with his parents.
Hear and Now (2007): In this award-winning film by Irene Taylor Brodsky, she follows the story of her parents—born deaf—who get cochlear implants and hear for the first time.
Who Are The DeBolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids? (1977): An Oscar-winning documentary about a couple and their 19 adopted children, many of whom are disabled war orphans.
King Gimp (1999): Another Oscar winner about the life of painter Dan Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy.
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971): A German documentary about a deaf-blind woman and her interactions with others in the deaf-blind community.
My Flesh and Blood: (2003) A year in the life of the Tom family and its 11 adopted children, most of who have serious disabilities and diseases.
Up Syndrome (2000): A University of Texas student chronicles the life of his charismatic childhood friend who has Down Syndrome.
Without Pity: A Film About Abilities (2006): An HBO film, narrated by Christopher Reeve, that celebrates the efforts of the disabled to lead full, productive lives.
Handicapped Future (1971): A documentary about disabled children in Munich.
Normal People Scare Me (2006): Created by a 17-year-old with autism, this documentary features interviews with 65 people representing different levels on the autism spectrum.
Emmanuel's Gift (2005): A disabled man, born in Ghana, attempts to overcome the stigma of disability. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey.
Sound and Fury (2000): A documentary about two families with very different takes on the issue of cochlear implants.
Murderball (2005): An award-winning film that tracks the U.S. Quad Rugby Team's quest to compete in the Paralympics. Raw, funny, powerful and one of my all-time favorite movies.
How's Your News? (1999): A hilarious documentary about five people with disabilities, ranging from Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy, who travel around the country in an RV and conduct on-camera interviews with the public.
In The Land of the Deaf (1992): This documentary details the lives of hearing-impaired people from all walks of life.
When Billy Broke His Head...and Other Tales of Wonder (1995): The director, and narrator, of this film tells the story of his brain injury and its aftermath, then embarks on a cross-country journey to meet disability-rights activists.

And here are some movies about people with disabilities, most summaries courtesy of IMDB:
My Left Foot: The story of Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy. He learned to paint and write with his only controllable limb, his left foot.
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly: A stroke victim, at the time the editor of French Elle, figures out how to communicate by blinking his eye. You. Will. Sob.
The Miracle Worker: The story of Anne Sullivan's struggle to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate.
Coming Home: A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam falls in love with another man who suffered a paralyzing combat injury there.
First Do No Harm: Meryl Streep stars as a mom who must fight to try alternative treatments for her epileptic child.
Waterdance: An oft-overlooked film about a man who breaks his neck while hiking, and finds himself in a rehab center with other people dealing with their newfound handicaps.
Door to Door: A man (William Macy) with cerebral palsy is determined to become a salesman.
Passion Fish: The story of a successful soap opera star who becomes wheelchair-bound after a car accident.
I Am Sam: A mentally retarded man fights for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, and in the process teaches his cold-hearted lawyer the value of love and family.
Children of a Lesser God: A new speech teacher at a school for the deaf falls for a pupil who decided to stay on at the school rather than venture into the big, bad world.
The Other Sister: A mentally retarded girl proves herself to be every bit as capable as her "perfect" sister when she moves into an apartment and starts college.
Love Leads the Way: A recently blinded man becomes one of the first American users of a seeing-eye dog, and must fight to remove the legal barriers impeding the use of one.
The Mighty: A boy with a severe learning disability befriends a boy with a disorder that stunts his growth.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?: A boy struggles to care for his obese mother and mentally-disabled brother (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Radio: The story of a high school coach and the developmentally challenged man whom he took under his wing.
Forrest Gump: A simple man scores major achievements, and I will spare you the box-of-chocolates reference.
Dominick and Eugene: The story of twin brothers, one who's a bit slow, who live together and help each other get by.
Yarn Princess: A mildly retarded woman has to fight to keep her kids after her husband is diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Slingblade: A simple-minded man, hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, is released to start a new life in a small town.
Reach for the Sky: The true story of airman Douglas Bader who overcame the loss of both legs in a 1931 flying accident to become a successful fighter pilot and wing leader during World War II.
My Louisiana Sky: A girl comes to terms with her mentally challenged parents.

During my manic Google search, I also found out that there's a film festival, Different From What?, taking place January 29-31 in Tempe, which explores ability and disability from multiple perspectives. There's an amazing lineup of films, especially the guest film, Shooting Beauty: "Shot over the span of nearly a decade, Shooting Beauty tells the eye-opening story of an aspiring fashion photographer whose career takes a life changing turn when she discovers true beauty at a center for people living with significant disabilities. When she begins inventing cameras her new friends can use, a surprising story unfolds that initial reviewers are calling 'more than a film... a masterpiece.'”

It sounds great, I hope I get to see it.

Anyway, don't you think it's time that more disabled people (and kids) were featured in movies and on TV? Wouldn't it be great for our kids to see people in starring roles who look and act like they do? Wouldn't it be great for all people to get used to seeing handicapped people in these roles? Share your thoughts!


  1. Melbourne has an annual film festival dedicated to "new cinema by, with and about people with a disability"....

    another reason to come visit us!

  2. I would really like to see Ethan and Jennifer. If I win, you can just bring it to the party, since I was so happy to see that you RSVP'd yes!

    Thanks for this terrific entry. I've been meaning to see Murderball for years.

    sarahvb at gmail dot com

  3. As someone living with a SCI, Waterdance was always a favorite of mine.

    My sutistic brother is a great fan of Rain Man.

    A TV movie with Michale O'Keefe and Marlee Matlin is Bridge to Silence which is also a great film about a custody struggle of a deaf mother and hearing grandmother.

  4. Thanks for this awesome list -- I have seen Murderball (excellent) but not many of the others. Another blogger told me recently about a movie based on a script by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night). The movie is called Coming down the mountain and one of the lead characters has Down syndrome.

    I haven't seen Avatar, but I was wondering if it conveyed the idea that Jake is heroic when he loses his disability? I haven't seen the movie, so maybe I don't get it, but I would hate for kids/people to get the idea that he couldn't be a hero when he uses his wheelchair. And that he needs to in some way "overcome" his disability.

    Also, would love to see Shooting with beauty. Thanks for all the links. lk

  5. Excellent q, Louise! In the movie (I'll try to say this without spoiling the plot), Jake is mostly a hero when he's out of his wheelchair—it's an action film, and he is not an action hero while he's in the wheelchair. But his intentions when he's in his wheelchair are admirable!

  6. OK I have to be a movie buff here, a little. I LOVE Murderball. LOVE LOVE LOVE it.
    I finally saw My Left Foot a few months ago. I have to be honest I really didn't find it to be that good of a movie, or at least it didn't live up to the hype it's always had.
    There's another really good movie that didn't make your list that I also love but I can't remember the name of it right now (I just got up) but in the comentary they address the issue of whether you hire a disabled acter to play a disabled character, so that might help your thought process. When I remember the movie I'll email you, if you don't email me first.

  7. Yes, it is time we got past "Corky" and Peter Griffin's neighbor "Joe" as standard bearers. And of course, Marlee Matlin, who is the Go-To Deaf Female....

    Best Boy is up on YOUTUBE...I find it tough to watch on some levels, but it does make you think about your child's future.

    I haven't seen AVATAR yet. It probably won't get here for another few weeks! I heard people complaining about a racist angle to it (Great White Father Is Superior To People Of Other Colors) but I haven't paid much attention, to be honest. We don't go to movies much because of the "Fidget Factor." DVDs are just easier!

  8. I've been wanting to see Avatar and had heard that it was good. Thanks for sharing about it and all the others, I have some stuff to look for on Netflix now. As for disabled people in movies and TV, I remember a show that came out when I was younger, Life Goes On. It had Corky who had Down Syndrome, and I remember I loved to watch that show. I know there are others that I've seen with disabled actors, just can't think of them right now. I do know that actor Christopher Lambert (Highlander) is legally blind without his glasses which I've never seen him wear in any of his movies.

  9. There is a wonderful documentary called "Why Do You Walk Funny?" about the integrated kindergarten program run through Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto. I believe it is available to view online.

  10. Ellen,
    Great list! You are awesome! I used to teach art and I had quotes from the artist who stared in King Gimp all over the room. I saw him at a presentation and my son got to meet him. I told him he was an inspiration to my students and me. Here is a quote I'd post:
    “With painting, I could express myself clearly without anybody interpreting for me. … Art set free emotion trapped inside of me, that the world could now hear what I was a person. With art I am.” Daniel Keplinger, American artist.

    Other artists with disabilities include Chuck Close, Horace Pippin, Frida Kahlo, Dorthea Lange and Robert Rauschenberg among others. I was always featuring these artists to show anything is possible.

    On the film front, Praying With Lior is a documentary about how Lior gets his Bar Mitzvah, how his community/family/friends help him achieve this. It also addresses how he is a spiritual being. Lior has Down Syndrome. Here is a link to the trailer:
    As always, great post.

  11. Well, bI must admit that I'm not a movie person. I really hate to cry or feel sad when I'm doing something that should be fun, so I generally watch happy/sappy stuff if I bother at all. Documentaries are OK--i just dont' like stuff that purposely pulls at my heart. I never see stuff in theaters.

    That said, I often joke that when people have a disability in a movieor on TV, its' often so clear-cut. They're legs don't work, but the rest of them is fine. This is sometimes the case, but often disability is a layered thing and you rarely see that.

    People on FB were talkinga bout a movie called "Adam" which I think is fairly new and is about Autism.

  12. Did you mention the deaf actress Marlee Matlin? Was she in films or just on the stage?

  13. what a great post! as a mom to one little rockstar in a wheelchair who has the charm and beauty and brains to go far... who knows right?

    i cannot WAIT to see Avatar!

  14. Just found your blog-am loving it already! We LOVE "Murderball" My sister met Zupe a few years back and said he's just as likable in person as he was on film!

  15. Did you already give your copy of the movie away? I can't tell from the comments. I would LOVE to have it to give my friends. She (the mom) is the president of the local autism chapter where we live and I know she would make good use of it. Plus I'd really like to see it as well.

    Love your blog!

  16. I knew people would have other good movie recommendations. And, kct, I did not know that some of those artists had disabilities, I will have to go look them up. If you're back here reading this, feel free to further explain, inquiring minds want to know. Tesyaa, Marlee Matlin was in the film version of Children of a Lesser God. She won an Oscar for her role, I think at the time she was the youngest actress to ever win an Oscar for Best Actress (although not sure about Elizabeth Taylor). I saw the Broadway play years ago when it starred Linda Bove—the deaf actress who played Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street. She was wonderful. Brenda, Sarah above has already claimed the DVD, but please email Jo, she seemed willing to offer it up for screenings, especially to an autism organization.

  17. Have you ever seen "Rory O'Shea Was Here"? It's great, just watched it last week. It's about 2 young men that decided to go out & live in the world--wonderful.

  18. I have a child with disabilities, too. He has/had a severe bilateral cleft lip and palate. He was also failure to thrive. He's doing better now, at 16 months, but he's still way behind and has 3 surgeries under his belt.
    Even pre-surgery, I never hid my child away from the public. Yes, people stared and children were curious. What bothered me the most were the adults who seriously lacked any kind of tactfulness.
    Either way, I just wanted to drop by and say that I commend you for your dedication. If you happen to read my blogs, don't be deceived. Hardly any of them are related to my son and I have other issues in my background.
    Nice to see someone else with the same kind of mindset as I.

  19. Ellen,
    Here you are, thanks for asking.

    Robert Rauschenberg – an American artist diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult.

    Chuck Close – American artist who is dyslexic and at age 49 was stricken with a spinal blood clot that left him a quadriplegic. His biggest fear was that “I was not going to make art. Since I’ll never be able to move again, I was not able to make art. I watched my muscles waste. My hand’s didn’t work.” … At first he held a brush between his teeth and he could control it enough to paint. Later, he regained some movement in his upper arm, and his therapists fashioned a hand splint onto which they could tape a paint brush.

    Dorthea Lange – American photographer who walked with a limp due to contracting polio at the age of seven. She said of her disability, “I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, humiliated me, all those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it and I am aware of the force and power of it.” Lange spent her life traveling and photographing mostly the disenfranchised.

    Frida Kahlo – Mexican artist who is known throughout the world for her unusual, colorful and sometimes disturbing paintings. Her disability stemmed from childhood polio and a bus accident when she was 18. Many of her paintings reflect the physical pain she suffered through most of her life.

    Daniel Keplinger, American Artist with cerebral palsy. Featured in and the author of a 2000 documentary, “King Gimp” It won an Oscar. His disability limits his speech and body movements. He uses a wheelchair. To mix colors and paint, a brush is fastened to a helmet-like device strapped to his head.

    Horace Pippin, African American artist. Self taught artist who overcame crippling injuries from his service in World War I. (Hirshohorn)

    Edvard Munch? “I would not cast off my illness, for there is much in my art that I owe to it.” He suffered from mental illnesses, maybe bipolar/depression.

  20. the amc series 'breaking bad' has a teenage kid with cp in it. he actually has cp and is an actor. rj mitte. love that show.

  21. While you may have a child with a disability, you do not understand in the world that he lives in. Instead of hindering his world by using words like "special needs" and "handicap" you only giving him more challenges in the road. Use person first when describing your son. He is a human just like you. We fear the things we do not understand.

  22. I realized that after I wrote the post—it should have said, "Avatar and other movies with people who have disabilities." I try to be conscientious about putting the person first, sometimes I mess up; I'll change it. But, Eternal Optimitist, it is very, very wrong to assume that I do not understand that my child is "human" just because I made a slip-up in wording my post. That assumption is highly insulting to a parent of a child with special needs. You accuse me of "hindering his world" with word choices; I think you should be more careful with your wording choices as well.

  23. I tried watching Rory O'Shea Was Here, really early on in this special needs life. I couldn't make it...I bawled and bawled. And I think it is a comedy. I should try again.

    Do you follow OUCH! It's the BBC's blog on all things disability. I really love it. Today there is an article on a 13 year old Welsh actor with CP,

    And these are not movies, but oh I love this website of mini episodes about a group of young adults in England that are living on their own, with a few caretakers helping. Definitely inspirational about what the future might look like.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. People with disabilities are not looking for a cure bUt acceptance. I do not assume, I just read your words. While you may think it's a mishap, I do not think of it that way. Words are powerful weapons, use them wisely.

  26. We just showed clips from the movie Including Samuel at a professional development at my school. This is a great list that I'm going to refer to for future trainings

  27. thanks for the movie update this is by far my favorite post of 2010

  28. I'm going to have to google the film fest in Tempe, so that I can attend. Care to share any more info you have on it?

  29. I've been lurking around the site for a couple of days so I figured I should step up and finally say hello.

    I stumbled across your blog on a link from yahoo and found it interesting. I also have CP and I just think that the way that you document Max's struggles and triumphs is heartwarming and also very realistic. That's not exactly the right word for what I'm trying to say, but I hope that you understand what I mean.

    I was going to mention RJ Mitte and Breaking Bad but someone already has. I agree that there aren't enough actors with disabilities portraying those kinds of parts. A friend of mine who also has CP wants to be an actress, and is, but it's been difficult for her to be cast in parts although she has had a few small roles.
    I don't remember seeing it on your list but I may have missed it, in any case I thought I'd mention that the Brooke Ellison story is another good movie about people with disabilities.

  30. Oh, I see Sarah's comment now. I'm awake.

  31. Unless you have a child with special needs, you can't know how much not only stares, comments, but written words can hurt - cut to the bone. Ellen's entire blog emotes life's positives and challenges with various "needs" or "issues" or "goals one is working on." Whatever the term one uses, and some are way better than others, look at the content of this blog. This has been created by a person who is helping, nurturing, raising and having fun with three important people in her life, one whose favorite color of purple. Having a child with special needs (the lay person's term, not mine and not how I define my child) means knowing not everyone is going to accept all of the decision you make for your child. Or get your relationship with your child. That's not to say that the comments don't hurt. I don't know any other mom or educator who has ever compiled a list like the one you presented here (movies featuring people or actors portraying various disabilities). I've seen lists like that and even tried to make my own, but none so comprehensive. Keep up the great blog Ellen. You've replaced the Washington Post as my go-to in the a.m. with my coffee. I know when you saw that purple shopping bag from Bed Bath and Beyond, you just knew who it would be for even if you didn't know what it was going to be ... And when Sabrina got to wear her Princess costume for a week straight because it was her favorite thing in the world to wear ... that's getting it big time. Now, let's move on to the purple sprinkles.

  32. Have you seen Autism the musical? It literally about a group of kids with put on a musical and they all have differing levels of autism. It was an absolutely fantastic documentary.

  33. This is such a great list! Have you seen Music Within? It's an AMAZING movie starring Ron Livingston who plays Richard Pimental, a hearing-impaired Vietnam veteran who was instrumental in getting the ADA passed. His best friend and co-star in the movie has CP, and many of the actors in the movie had actual disabilities (not just acting). It was a great film and I actually cried. It didn't get much attention, but I wish it would because it was such a beautiful story.

  34. Ellen: I feel so sad that people freely comment on anything you say that they have misconstrued to be a negative light. As someone who has been following you from the beginning, I know how you see Max. And it is not in a limiting way. You are honest and vulnerable and transparent, and for that, I'll guess you'll get attacked.

    I know how much you respect Max, and how realistic you are about his world.

    For someone to think you don't see him as human, is just someone who is looking for any press time, so people will click over to their link and find out what they're about.

    There are cheap people like that all over, trying to create some drama and sensationalism and track over to their site.

    Anyone who knows you, knows your respect for Max. Anyone.

  35. I think everyone with disabilities should get a chance to do what able-bodied people do. A good example is with American Idol. The guy who was blind (I cannot remember his name right now) got a chance and made it to the top 13 and the live show. Do I think some people voted for him due to his be realistic, yes. But him making it that far with so much support just goes to show that those with disabilities can do whatever they put their minds and hearts to. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    heidibokor @ yahoo . com

  36. Thank you for this awesome resource. I do agree that Hollywood tends to go to extremes when portraying disabilities, making them the defining feature of the character and constantly blatant and in-your-face. I use a wheelchair, but I don't think that when I interact with others it is constantly "Oh My God She is In A Wheelchair!". Also, realistically there is so much more to using a wheelchair than making sure to not move your legs (in my case, my legs do move, just not functionally). I personally have chosen not to watch Avatar because it seems to me to send the message that you can not be anything special when you have a disability, you can only be complete and be a hero when you have a "normal" body even if it is synthetic. My heroes are my students who were absolutely perfectly imperfect.

  37. I am trying to get my hands on "After Thomas" – A film about a Golden Retriever and his Autistic best friend which has been recommended to me.

    I liked the Aussie movie "The Black Balloon" - but it isn't for the faint hearted (it's not your glossy, feel good hollywood type movie).

    I have a soft spot for "Annie's Coming Out" (movie of the book) as the speechie portrayed is the one who devised Mac's communication options for us last October.

    And another Aussie movie - not about disability but more about how people can become completely devalued without the right supports is "Sampson & Delilah" - I am still smarting from watching that and realising how modern societies 'suck' at protecting after their most vulnerable - in this instance a couple of Aboriginal children.

    Thanks for the great list - I am going to copy it out as a checklist (bucket-list) LOL.


  38. My film "There's Still Hope for Dreams...a PHAMALY Story" in in the "Different From What" film festival. Here's the website for my doc on the worlds only professional all disabled theater company

    and two other great films with disabled actors "the best years of our lives" and "inside moves"

  39. I thought I'd add the movie Molly to your list of movies w/ people w/ disabilities. Elizabeth Shue plays a woman with autism who undergoes experimental treatment with unexpected results. Very well done and very interesting.

  40. There is a superhero who lost the use of her legs. Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl in DC Comics. She is shot in the spine by The Joker in a graphic novel called "The Killing Joke". She has gone on to star in her own series called "Birds of Prey". Her post-injury superhero name is Oracle. I recommend finding the trade paperback called "The Hunt for Oracle" where she proves quite conclusively just how heroic she is.

    There is also Prof Xavier at Marvel but he's a telepath and so it's harder to relate I think. However Babs is non-superpowered. She does have a photographic memory (she had it way before the injury), but mostly it's her brains and the degree she's trained her body that makes the difference. She also practices the martial art of Escrima.

  41. Found this through the bookmarks my missus keeps adding on my computer.

    Anyways, here's some short but inspiring films about people with disabilities:
    Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham was born with spina bifida:

    Not born with disabilities but overcoming them:

    Ok, they're not mental disabilities but seeing what these people are doing gives me a lot of hope for my son with his CP. All it takes is determination.

  42. I know this is a ridiculously late reply to an ancient blog you wrote about Avatar and other films that feature people with disabilities... but here goes anyway:
    You stated that Jake Scully had admirable intentions while in his wheelchair in the movie Avatar. I must disagree completely. He is presented with an opportunity by his sleazy commander to infiltrate the indigenous tribe and learn the most profound ways to attack them and remove them. He's not certain he'll do it until said sleazeball offers to "get him new legs" (the real kind - expensive ones). Scully lights up and gives one of those Semper Fidelis thumbs-up BOOYAH grunts and wheels away a happier man. I believe Cameron's film is many things; including a huge ripoff of Dances With Wolves but there's one thing its not and that's a solid portrayal of a paraplegic Marine with integrity. Sorry but your readers have been sent a bad message by your off-the-mark recap. It was just "too wrong" to be left unchallenged - forgive me. Chris


Thanks for sharing!