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. Disability tropes and ableism in movies are common.

What we see in society in books and movies is important. It influences how people think about people and situations.

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A cinema with rows of seats and a blank screen, symbolizing the lack of representation in movies for certain marginalized groups.

No one denies that racist tropes in TV shows and movies (Black people are usually portrayed as poor, only living in cities, always gang members, or exemplary athletes) affect us and our biases. The same can be said for ableist biases, which then can lead to ableist microaggressions in IEP meetings.

Why Ableist Movies Matter

According to the MPAA, the population of the United States and Canada aged two and over totaled 348.3 million people in 2017, with 76 percent, or 264.7 million, going to the movies at least once.

That’s an awful lot of people! Over three-quarters of the population!

And these disability tropes matter. Because it’s these little things that influence what we say and do.

Of course, we all think it’s horrible when someone uses the R word. We can call that out as an example of ableism. But it’s these more subtle messaging in movies that reinforce negative stereotypes, that do more damage to the disability community, in my opinion.

There are so many microaggression examples in schools, and it all starts with the information we are fed.

An arrangement of film reels on a white surface hints at the possible history of ableism in movies.

Ableism in 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. 

SAG-AFTRA

To make matters worse, when a disabled person is in a movie, they are usually pigeonholed 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.

Disability Tropes

We need to scrutinize ableist tropes in movies with the same vigilance that we scrutinize race.

Continued bad representation of disability in film will result in continued marginalization of disabled people. Disabled people have the right to work and the right to be actors and actresses in movies.

Ableism in movies manifests through various tropes, stereotypes, and portrayals that marginalize or misrepresent individuals with disabilities. Often, disabled characters are relegated to one-dimensional roles, serving as objects of pity, inspiration, or even villainy, rather than fully developed individuals with agency and complexity.

Their stories are frequently told through a lens of able-bodied perspectives, reinforcing the notion that disability is something to be overcome or cured rather than embraced as part of human diversity.

Furthermore, the lack of authentic representation behind the camera exacerbates the issue, as disabled actors, writers, and directors are often sidelined, further perpetuating ableist narratives. Additionally, the reliance on able-bodied actors to portray disabled characters through methods like “crippling up” not only deprives disabled actors of opportunities but also reinforces harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies about disability experiences.

A trope is a common or overused theme, motif, character type, plot device, or pattern in literature, film, television, or other forms of storytelling. Tropes can be both narrative conventions and character archetypes that audiences recognize and expect to encounter in various media.

While tropes can serve as useful storytelling tools, providing familiarity and shorthand for conveying ideas, they can also become clichéd or reinforce stereotypes if not used thoughtfully. Tropes often evolve over time and can be subverted or deconstructed by creators to create fresh and innovative narratives.

Here are some of the main roles and common disability tropes in movies. Again, over 95% of these roles are not even disabled actors!

  1. Bitter Disabled Person Trope: The angry, bitter disabled person who is forever angry due to their disability 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. Disability Superhero Trope: The superhero or savant; comes in a lot of flavors—from being a “genius” when everyone thought they were intellectually disabled, to the mystical blind person who “sees” more than sighted people, to 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. Infantilizing Trope: The intellectually disabled character is childlike and innocent; their innocence and simplicity confer 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. Or, they should be thought of as toddlers, with all the language and patronizing treatment
  4. Better off dead trope: 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. Disability Saviorism Trope: 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!
  6. The disability cured trope: CURED! You must 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. Inspiration Porn Disability Trope: “Inspiration porn” is a term coined to describe the portrayal of people with disabilities in a way that objectifies them for the benefit or comfort of able-bodied individuals. It typically involves highlighting the accomplishments or everyday activities of individuals with disabilities in a manner that elicits feelings of inspiration or admiration from able-bodied people, often without considering the agency or humanity of the individuals being depicted.
  8. Institutionalization Trope: Seriously, Hollywood, what 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, funny, or interesting. Just stop with the institution story lines.
Popcorn in a glass bowl on a grey background, highlighting ableism in movies.

Movies That Portray Disabilities Negatively

There is no shortage of examples of harmful disability tropes.

A movie theater featuring discussions on ableism in movies and adolescence.

Here are a few examples of ableism in movies. Can you match up these movies that portray disabilities negatively 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. Features a character with intellectual disabilities whose experiences are portrayed simplistically and sometimes mockingly.
  2. Forrest Gump-Lt. Dan storyline. Dan is very unhappy and bitter 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. While beloved by some, it is criticized for romanticizing and oversimplifying mental illness.
  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 course 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 goes. 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 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 w with superhero powers. The X-Men team must defend themselves against anti-mutant legislation and 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 is 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.
  28. “Me Before You” (2016) – Criticized for its portrayal of a disabled character who chooses to end his life rather than live with a disability.
  29. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) – Portrays a character who becomes quadriplegic after an injury and ultimately chooses euthanasia.
  30. “I Am Sam” (2001) – The portrayal of a man with intellectual disabilities is seen as overly sentimental and lacking nuance.
  31. “The Ringer” (2005) – A comedy criticized for its insensitive portrayal of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
  32. “Tropic Thunder” (2008) – Contains controversial scenes involving the use of the R word and caricatured portrayals of disabilities.
  33. “The Other Sister” (1999) – Criticized for its simplistic portrayal of a romantic relationship between characters with intellectual disabilities.
  34. “Radio” (2003) – Depicts a character with intellectual disabilities in a manner that some consider patronizing and stereotypical.
  35. “The Fisher King” (1991) – While acclaimed, some argue it uses mental illness as a plot device rather than exploring it authentically.
  36. “White Oleander” (2002) – Features a character with mental illness whose condition is sensationalized rather than sensitively portrayed.
  37. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) – The character of Quasimodo, while sympathetic, perpetuates stereotypes about physical disabilities.
  38. “The Waterboy” (1998) – Contains humor based on stereotypes of intellectual disabilities.
  39. “Simple Jack” (from “Tropic Thunder”) – A fictional film within the movie, criticized for its offensive portrayal of a character with intellectual disabilities.
  40. “Gothika” (2003) – Depicts a character with dissociative identity disorder in a sensationalized and stigmatizing manner.
  41. “Don’t Say a Word” (2001) – Contains a portrayal of a character with selective mutism that some view as inaccurate and sensationalized.
  42. “Birth of a Nation” (1915) – Contains offensive portrayals of Black characters with disabilities, perpetuating racist stereotypes.
  43. “Blade Runner” (1982) – Features a villainous character with physical disabilities, contributing to negative stereotypes.
  44. “The Seventh Seal” (1957) – Includes a character with a physical disability portrayed as a symbol of death and despair.
  45. “Freaks” (1932) – Exploitative portrayal of individuals with physical deformities, using them as shock value.
  46. “The Miracle Worker” (1962) – While based on a true story, some argue it simplifies the experiences of individuals with disabilities and their caregivers.
  47. “Johnny Belinda” (1948) – Depicts a deaf woman in a manner that some view as overly sentimental and lacking in authenticity.
  48. “My Left Foot” (1989) – While acclaimed, some argue it focuses too much on the protagonist’s disability rather than his humanity.
  49. “Patch Adams” (1998) – Features a character with mental illness portrayed in a comedic and sometimes patronizing manner.

Disability Tropes in the Media

I will do other posts about other forms of media. But, yes, this can carry over to IEPs and IEP meetings. Just like microaggression examples in schools, ableist biases happen too. You may hear an ableist microaggression in an IEP meeting, and this is how those beliefs form.

When members of the IEP team see common disability tropes in the movies and media, it can create an unconscious bias. Whether that’s infantilizing your child and assuming they cannot accomplish much, or feeling like they are your child’s savior and that you should be thrilled with whatever they are offering….what we see in movies matters.

Addressing ableism in movies requires a concerted effort to amplify diverse voices, challenge stereotypes, and foster authentic representation both in front of and behind the camera.

A woman holding up a movie clapper board, shedding light on ableism in films.

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