Ableist Movie Tropes and Characters

I think most of us would agree that if a movie calls for a Black character, then a Black actor/actress should fill that role. Right? It would be incredibly offensive to have a white person dress up as Black and play the role. However, this happens to disabled people all the time.

What we see in society in books and movies is important. It influences how people think about people and situations. No one denies that racist tropes in TV shows and movies (Black people usually portrayed as poor, only live in cities, always a gang member or exemplary athlete) affects us and our biases. The same can be said for ableist biases.

Ableist Tropes and Characters in American Movies

According to “The Employment of Performers with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry” report, 54 million Americans (20 percent of all Americans) are living with a mental or physical disability, yet less than 2 percent of TV show characters display a disability and only 0.5 percent have speaking roles. General findings show that performers with disabilities are more than 50 percent more likely to experience workplace discrimination than Americans without disabilities. 


To make matters worse, when a disabled person is in a movie, they usually are pigeon-holed into a discriminatory or ableist trope. One that reinforces stereotypes. A white paper by the Ruderman Foundation found that 95% of all disabled roles go to non-disabled people.

Ableist Tropes in Movies

We need to scrutinize our movies with the same vigilance that we scrutinize for race. Disabled people will continue to be marginalized if they are not given the same opportunities to work in Hollywood. And, play meaningful roles and not further entrench stereotypes.

Here are some of the main roles and ableist tropes in movies. And, again, over 95% of these roles are not even disabled actors!

  1. The angry, bitter disabled person who who is forever angry due to their disability; and lashes out at non-disabled people who are just trying to help. Message sent: Being disabled is a miserable existence. And we’re bitchy, ungrateful people who don’t deserve your saviorism.
  2. The superhero or savant; comes in a lot of flavors–from being a “genius” when everyone thought they were intellectually disabled, or the mystical blind person who “sees” more than sighted people, or the deaf/HH character who “hears” things. Message sent: Being disabled, regardless of disability, is not something you should be happy with. You need to find another redeeming quality in yourself before we will like you.
  3. The intellectually disabled character, who is child-like and innocent; their innocence and simplicity confers goodness on others around them. Message sent: IDD people were put here on this planet just for you to feel better about yourself and be glad you’re not us.
  4. Better off dead. Just what it says. Being disabled is so terrible, you’re better off dead. One of the most harmful and at the same time most popular disability themes, in which a disabled person fights for the right to kill themselves, while the film encourages audiences to see this wish as rational or even selfless. Message sent: The disabled life is not a life worth living.
  5. Saviorism. Much like white saviorism in which white people try to “save” Black people, this story line involves a person or persons who band together and “save” the disabled person from their tragic life. Message sent: You cannot help yourself, only non-disabled people can. And, look at what a good person I am, for helping a disabled person! (centering)
  6. CURED! Overcome the disability: Because being disabled sucks so bad, the only way you can really be happy is to either be dead (see above) or you must find the inner strength to overcome your disability, against all odds. Message sent: Living a disabled life is not acceptable. Disabled people could be non-disabled if they just tried harder.
  7. Coming back to edit this post and add: Institutionalization. Seriously Hollywood, wtf is up with your obsession with it? Disabled people have the right to live in their own communities. Not shuttered away in segregated sub-par conditions. Which is what usually happens. It’s not cute, nor funny, nor interesting. Just stop with the institution story lines.

Examples of Ableist Tropes in Movies

And thankfully, there is no shortage of examples. Here are a few. Can you match them up with one of the tropes from above?

  1. Forrest Gump shows a person with an intellectual disability (without saying that out loud) as the butt of several jokes about his intelligence. He has no agency — He just tumbles through life and things happen, mostly good. And that’s supposed to be inspiring somehow. And remember, good things didn’t start to happen to him until those leg braces came off.
  2. Forrest Gump-Lt Dan storyline. Dan is very unhappy, until he gets new legs.
  3. As Good As It Gets-Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a cantankerous writer with obsessive compulsive disorder who softens when he meets a single mom waitress (Helen Hunt). Whew! He’s saved!
  4. At First Sight-Masseur Virgil (Val Kilmer) has been blind since age 3. He meets New York architect Amy (Mira Sorvino) who convinces him to have radical eye surgery done to restore his sight. Virgil regains his sight and must adjust to being able to see. Cured!
  5. Benny & Joon– Benny (Aidan Quinn) cares for his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), who has a mental illness. He also inherits the care of Sam (Johnny Depp), who has a personality disorder. Sam and Joon fall in love while Benny struggles to decide if he should send Joon to a group home. (Ack! A trope or storyline I forgot to mention…sometimes institutionalization is a good thing!)
  6. Born on the Fourth of July: Tom Cruise portrays Ron Kovic, who had a spinal cord injury from his tour in Vietnam and later became a political activist. So much anger!
  7. Bubble Boy: Summary: A man who was born without an immune system has lived his life in a plastic bubble. When he finds out the woman he loves is about to be married, he builds a portable bubble suit and takes off after her. (I can’t even)
  8. Charly-Scientists inject Charly (Cliff Robertson) with a drug that takes him from someone with mental retardation to a genius. Because of course. An injection.
  9. Children of a Lesser God: Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin) is a former student at a school for the deaf who resists a new teacher’s (William Hurt) efforts to teach her to read lips and use her deaf voice. Gawd, why is she such a bitch? He’s just trying to help her and save her!
  10. The Doctor-Jack McKee (William Hurt) is a successful doctor who discovers he has throat cancer. After undergoing treatment, he realizes the importance of doctors treating patients with respect and dignity. (Disability is something I could marginalize, until it happened to me!)
  11. Frances: Jessica Lange portrays Frances Farmer, an actress from the 1930s, who was institutionalized. (of she was, what is Hollywood’s obsession with institutionalization, anyway?)
  12. Girl, Interrupted: Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) recalls her experiences as a young woman who was admitted to a mental hospital in the 1960s. Add another one for institutionalization…and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t even make my list!
  13. I am Sam: Sam (Sean Penn) must fight for the right to maintain custody of his 7-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). Barftastic.
  14. The Men: Ken (Marlon Brando) is a veteran adjusting to life with a spinal cord injury. His fiancee (Teresa Wright) still wants to marry him but hopes for a cure. (I love him, but not as much as I’d love him if he wasn’t disabled)
  15. Men of Honor: Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Carl Brashear, the Navy’s first African American diver who is also an amputee. This one isn’t too terrible as far as the story. However, there are literally thousands of amputee actors seeking work who could have played this role. And, actors who don’t have the same accusations against them that Mr Gooding has.
  16. The Miracle Worker: Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), who has a vision impairment, tries to teach young Helen Keller (Patty Duke), who is deaf and blind. So much wrong. Does anyone actually remember that she is a person and not a circus sideshow or novelty? I feel like her whole life, she was treated as one.
  17. Molly: Molly McKay (Elisabeth Shue) is released from an institution and undergoes an experimental medical treatment that turns her into a genius. See? Sometimes institutionalization can lead to a cure!
  18. ‘Night Mother: Jessie Cates (Sissy Spacek) tells her mother (Anne Bancroft) one night that she is going to commit suicide by morning. Jessie, who has epilepsy and whose son is a drug addict, says she is “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I guess being dead is better than having epilepsy?
  19. The Other Sister: When Carla Tate (Juliette Lewis) finishes her training school, she seeks independence. Her wealthy family overlooks her abilities and underestimates her relationship with Danny (Giovanni Ribisi), who also has a developmental disability. (insert eye roll, how dare you have abilities, you’re disabled, dammit!)
  20. Pumpkin: Carolyn (Christina Ricci) is a snobbish college sorority girl who mentors a member of a “challenged athletes” team for a sorority service project. At first she’s afraid of Pumpkin (Hank Harris), but soon she finds herself falling in love with him, shocking her friends and the family. (again, barftastic)
  21. Rain Man: Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) finds out after his father dies that he has a brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), who has been institutionalized throughout his life because he has autism. Fun Fact: The real rain man died a few years ago, and he didn’t have autism. He was missing a corpus callosum. This movie has done so much damage to the autism community.
  22. Scent of a Woman: A retired Army lieutenant who is blind (Al Pacino) decides to spend Thanksgiving in New York City with the young man (Chris O’Donnell) who is hired as his care attendant. (blech, just blech, saviorism, and an actual blind person should have had this role)
  23. There’s Something About Mary: A former geek (Ben Stiller) realizes he’s still in love with his high school crush, Mary (Cameron Diaz). He hires a private detective (Matt Dillon) to track her down, and both men compete for Mary’s affections. Mary’s brother, Warren, has a developmental disability. (IMO, Mary is treated as a savior, look at how awesome she is for having a disabled brother! Bless her heart)
  24. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: Gilbert (Johnny Depp) must care for his brother (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has autism, and his mother who is obese.
  25. Wild, Wild West: Gunslinger Jim West (Will Smith) must team up with inventor Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) to thwart the plans of villain Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who wants to assassinate President Grant. Loveless is a double amputee and uses a wheelchair. (all I’ll say is this: If a white man played a Black man in a movie, Will Smith would be screaming about it from the mountaintops. As he should. But for some reason, those rules don’t apply to disabled people.)
  26. X-Men: Professor X runs an academy for “mutants” — people with superhero powers. The X-Men team must defend themselves against anti-mutant legislation and the villainous mutants. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) uses a wheelchair. Good movie. In future sequels, how about you hire an actor who actually uses a wheelchair?
  27. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Fine, I’ll add it to the list. I hate the glorification of the institution. And, in the book….he NOT even mentally ill. He just pretends that he is to get out of jail time. Mental illness is not a costume to put on and take off on a whim.