A mother in a wheelchair finds joy in her young child, from Lives Worth Living

The Evolution of Disability in Film: After the Accolades, the Work Continues

July 16, 2020 by Independent Lens in

By Lawrence Carter-Long

Once upon a time, disability was just a diagnosis. Through time, the word has evolved to encompass larger more expansive concepts like community, identity, and culture. In 2020—thirty years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—anyone who still thinks of disability solely as a medical issue might not realize it but they’re also increasingly signaling to the world at large that they’re behind the times not just in theory but arguably by several decades. 

Culturally, for a variety of reasons, both experiences and depictions of disability are receiving renewed interest and increased attention.  Cinematically speaking, the complicated, messy, ever-changing relationship that viewers and creators have had with disability continues—quite literally—to play out before our very eyes.

Before we can truly move forward, let us pause a moment to glance back.  

As early as 1897, pioneering film-makers the Lumière brothers’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (The False Cripple, 1897) opens with a shot of a vagrant begging on the street. A police officer enters the frame, checks the beggar’s papers and gets suspicious. Fearing arrest, the huckster hops up and hurriedly dashes off into the distance with the cop in hot pursuit as a crowd gathers.

Film historians use the short to illustrate the often-unpredictable nature of early cinema by noting that a stray dog wandered on to the set while filming, lifts his leg and urinates at the film’s most pivotal moment—unintentionally foreshadowing this writer’s review over a century later. The gag, which was old by the time it was duplicated almost frame-by-frame just a year later by none other than Thomas Edison in his 30 second short “The Fake Beggar,” was recreated yet again as recently as 1983 by comedian Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.  



Even the earliest silver screen depictions of disability tended to sow more seeds of doubt and suspicion than attempting to illuminate an unfamiliar, but parallel experience or break new ground.

Later works like Werner Herzog’s ‎Handicapped Future and Land of Silence and Darkness (both 1971) while arguably more sympathetic and less melodramatic than the work of many of his predecessors sometimes falls into the trap of “othering” his subjects in lieu of providing fresh insights.  

Another parallel, significant shift occurred as a result of the filming and subsequent controversy that erupted over director Frederick Wiseman’s controversial Titicut Follies (1967) [Available on Kanopy]. Filmed at what was then called the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Wiseman’s groundbreaking documentary illustrates the power of non-fiction filmmaking and unwittingly illustrates how society can change, be forced to change, when harsh truths are exposed. When filmmakers attempt to reveal what was previously “safely” hidden away behind closed doors.

Wiseman’s camera impassively records patients being bullied, taunted, herded like cattle, mocked, stripped, drugged and kept in subhuman conditions by the institution’s indifferent guards, social workers and medical professionals in a narrator-less, structure-less collection of some of the bleakest images in the pantheon of cinéma verité specifically and documentary film more broadly.

Just prior to the film’s premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival, officials from the commonwealth of Massachusetts famously pressed for an injunction to ban its release, strangely claiming Wiseman’s film violated the privacy and dignity of residents — a claim that seems nothing short of ludicrous given that no such care or concern was expressed while the same residents were being abused by employees of the state. 

In 1968, a Massachusetts court ordered all copies of Follies destroyed. Wiseman appealed the decision. In 1969 the court relented, sort of, and allowed limited audiences to screen it for “educational purposes.” An affidavit signed by each member of the audience dictated that: 

“By order of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Titicut Follies may be shown only to judges, legislators, doctors, lawyers, sociologists, social workers, psychiatrists, students in these or related fields and organizations dealing with the social problems of custodial care and mental infirmity, Your signature … certifies that you are within the categories of people allowed to watch Titicut Follies as stated in the Final Decree of the Suffolk Superior Court, Eq. No. 87538, and repeated above.” (The viewer was required to sign and print his or her name.)  

Its intended audience—the general public—didn’t get to see Wiseman’s film until 1991, when Superior Court Judge Andrew Meyer concluded it didn’t violate privacy laws because, well, by that time most of the patients had died. Wiseman has long claimed, publicly, that state officials worried the film exposed practices at the institution in stark, unflattering verité were pressured to intervene in an obvious attempt to salvage its wounded reputation. 

The dispute is the first recorded instance in United States history of a documentary being banned from general distribution for reasons that have nothing to do with obscenity, perceived immorality or national security. 

The impact of Wiseman’s film, while somewhat ineffable, perhaps enhanced by the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, cannot and should not be overstated. Clearly, sometimes the truth hurts. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby opined, in a quote eventually featured on the movie’s poster, that Follies “made Marat/Sade look like Holiday on Ice.” But to be disillusioned is a synonym for waking up to reality.  Only then can we begin to make the necessary changes. To be disillusioned is a synonym for waking up to reality. It’s a necessary, albeit often painful first step on the road to change.  

Prior to the liberation of the film in ’91, families of seven internees who died at the hospital sued Bridgewater and Massachusetts in 1987. Steven Schwartz, attorney for one of the victims, stated in media interviews at the time that, “There is a direct connection between the decision not to show that film publicly and my client dying 20 years later, and a whole host of other people dying in between.” Schwartz further opined that “in the years since Mr. Wiseman made Titicut Follies most of the nation’s big mental institutions have been closed or cut back by court orders.” This included Bridgewater. 

The state Supreme Court ordered “a brief explanation shall be included in the film that changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater since 1966.” Follies was shown on PBS on September 4, 1992, its first and only screening on U.S. television.

Still, the distance between the viewer and the subjects of films like Follies—however powerful—usually remain safely “over there” rather than here. Somewhere else. To be viewed at a safe, comfortable distance, subject to existing, dominant structures of paternalism and objectification. Beyond those safe zones lies greater authenticity. But how is authenticity defined? And how do we determine what and who is authentic? 

Even verité is shaped in the editing room. Stories are rendered incomplete by deleted footage, omitted scenes or events discarded on the cutting room floor.  

While Wiseman was still fighting to get Follies seen beyond the select few that Bay State officials deemed appropriate, Beverly Shaffer’s I’ll Find a Way earned an Academy Award for best documentary short in 1977 by taking a more personal approach to its subject.

The 25-minute short follows Nadia, a 9-year-old girl with spina bifida who hopes to attend a “regular school” even though she knows other kids will tease her. Wise beyond her years, Nadia plainly states she’ll “find a way to deal with it.” And you don’t doubt it. Unlike the residents depicted in Wiseman’s film, Nadia has agency and she’s not afraid to assert it.  

View all of I’ll Find a Way here, courtesy the NFB of Canada:

Updating themes illustrated earlier in Shaffer’s film, King Gimp, which was awarded the 2000 Oscar for Best Short Subject Documentary and a 2000 Peabody Award, follows the life of Dan Keplinger of Towson, MD, an artist with cerebral palsy. Filmmakers Susan Hadary and Bill Whiteford spent 13 years making the 39-minute film and much like Nadia before him, Keplinger steadfastly and refreshingly refuses to be shoehorned into stereotypical polarities about disability being tragic or heroic. While Keplinger has difficulty speaking, that doesn’t mean he’s got nothing to say. Quite the opposite. 

Hadary and Whiteford initially thought about getting a well-known actor to do a voiceover for him, but in the end and true to form, the film’s subject spoke for himself. Keplinger became something of a media sensation after the Oscar ceremony when he excitedly bounced out of his wheelchair, on air, after Hadary-Whiteford were announced as the winners. “It was cool to people who knew me,” the artist told The Washington Post following the awards ceremony. Strangers “thought I was having a seizure. But I was just doing my victory dance.”

Shifting the focus from disabled individuals to the disability community and its emergence as a political constituency almost a decade before Crip Camp chronicled the transformative experience of attending NY’s Camp Jened for disabled teens which gave a turbo boost to what would later emerge as a re-invigorated disability rights movement, Lives Worth Living which premiered in October 2011 on Independent Lens was among the first mainstream docs to reposition disability as a civil rights issue told by those who rocked, rolled and literally crawled up the steps of the United States Capitol in a successful effort to secure those rights.   

But life, in its totality, is more than protest and painting.  Beyond community there’s intimacy and more recently, Blind Love, a docu-series that premiered on Valentine’s Day earlier this year online via Independent Lens, deftly spotlights four single, blind millennials in their quest for love. With help from family and friends, series regulars hailing across the United States from Florida, Maryland, New York, and Texas with interests as diverse as their geography—from poker playing to ballroom dancing—help infuse fresh perspectives into contemporary dating. I’m generally not drawn to “reality” TV but I’m pleased to say my one complaint about the seven roughly 10-minute episodes it is that the series ended too soon and left me wanting more.

This left me wondering, “With all the buzz generated as a result of crowd-pleasing docs like Sundance darlings Crip Camp and The Reason I Jump, what’s next?  What might the next wave of disability cinema offer that’s fresh, innovative and new?  

I asked the actor/activist Nic Novicki (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) via email what a truly inclusive media landscape would look like. Back in 2014, Novicki launched the Disability Film Challenge—a fifty-five-hour filmmaking competition—as an active response to disability being woefully, chronically underrepresented in media. In 2017, he joined forces with Easterseals Southern California to expand the effort, rechristening it the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. Without missing a beat, Novicki shot back, “A more inclusive media world will feature and employ more people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.” 

“A more inclusive media world will feature and employ more people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.” Novicki further detailed that through the competition he’s “seen hundreds of talented people with disabilities make great films over the last 7 years. Some of these films were done with little to no resources and they have gone on to screen at academy award qualifying festivals and their films have opened up doors.  The time is now for the industry to open up their doors to the largest minority population in the world. The industry needs to take advantage of an untapped market that can authentically add another layer to film and TV shows. 

“As a little person who has worked for years as an actor, comedian, producer and writer I’d love to show up to film or TV sets and see 25% of the cast and crew with a disability.  I feel that we have the momentum on our side now — we just need to all collectively keep pushing forward.”

In the end, imperfect beats absent.  Even those unfortunate instances where a filmmaker gets important nuances wrong, the art and act of filmmaking, and the process of sharing one’s vision with the others, can spark necessary conversations. And those conversations, in turn, can lead to unimagined changes in both thinking and in society.

Accomplish that and you’ve set the perfect stage to expand opportunity. Perhaps the next wave then will mark a transition from disability as subject or object into largely uncharted terrain – where disabled filmmakers are given increased access to turn the camera on themselves and on the world surrounding them. Ultimately, shining a light on fresh perspectives and untapped insights.  

Want More? In addition to films already listed, check out our Disability Cinema Starter Kit:

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012). Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller. Jerome Solon Felder (aka Doc Pomus) was perhaps the most unlikely of rock & roll icons. Paralyzed with polio as a child, Brooklyn-born Felder reinvented himself first as a blues singer, renaming himself Doc Pomus, then as a songwriter, creating some of the greatest hits of the early rock and roll era: “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and a thousand others. [Streaming on Vudu.]

Becoming Bulletproof (2014). Directed by Michael Barnett. Aspiring actors with disabilities take on leading roles in a short Western, filmed on vintage Hollywood locations. A riveting film within a film that immerses viewers in a dynamic, inclusive world of discipline and play, raising questions about why we so rarely see real disabled actors on the silver screen. [Streaming on Tubi and multiple VOD platforms.]

Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996). A short documentary film directed by Jessica Yu, it won an Oscar at the 69th Academy Awards in 1997 for Documentary Short Subject and was the basis for the 2012 theatrical film, The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin.   

Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy (2007). Directed by Alice Elliott. Focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Diana Braun, who has Down Syndrome, and Kathy Conour, who has cerebral palsy. The two activists for the rights of people with disabilities met three decades ago and vowed to fight to live independent lives together. It made its television debut on PBS in October 2009. [Streaming on Kanopy.]

CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion (2018). Directed by Jenni Gold. Investigates how media portrayals impact the actual inclusion of disabled people in society. [For rent on VOD platforms.]

Code of the Freaks (2020). Directed by Salome Chasnoff.  Presents a radical reframing of disabled characters in film. Using hundreds of clips spanning over 100 years of moviemaking, and a cast of disabled artists, scholars, and activists, the film is a scorching critique of some of Hollywood’s most beloved characters. In virtual cinemas July 17-24. Available on DVD August 4, 2020. 

How’s Your News? (1999). Directed by Arthur Bradford. Hilariously chronicles the adventures of a team of reporters with a variety of disabilities conducting “on the street” interviews across the United States in a hand-painted RV. 

Invitation to Dance (2004) is an eye-opening insider’s account of disability in 21st century America. Directed by Christian Von Tippelskirch and Simi Linton, the film traces Linton’s personal growth as a disabled woman and the larger historically significant developments around her over the past 40 years. [For rent on VOD platforms.]

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (2019). Irene Taylor Brodsky’s coming-of age doc about the director’s son growing up, his grandfather growing old and Ludwig Van Beethoven, who crafted “Moonlight Sonata” as he was going deaf.  [On Hulu and HBO Go.]

Music by Prudence (2010). Short documentary film directed by Roger Ross Williams. Tells the story of the then 24-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena, and follows her remarkable transcendence from a world of hatred and superstition into one of music, love, and possibilities. Was awarded the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 82nd Academy Awards.

Raising Renee (2016). Directed by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. A notable fusion of subject and film, the themes that fuel artist Beverley McIver’s distinguished body of work—race, class, family, disability—also propel this cinematic portrait of McIver and the promise made to her sister Renee, who is intellectually disabled. 

The Art of Being LC (2016). Directed by Carl King. Tells the story of Lois Curtis, an African American woman with an intellectual disability who petitioned to leave Georgia Regional Hospital in Milledgeville to live in the community. A request denied by the state. Curtis’ case eventually made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the closure of most of the remaining state institutions in Georgia, and repositioned community residential living and integration for people with intellectual disabilities across the United States.

Where’s Molly? (2007). Director Jeff Daly searches to find his long-lost sister, who was institutionalized 50 years prior because doctors told their parents she was “profoundly retarded.” [Available for educational use via SproutFlix.]

Lawrence Carter-Long is the Director of Communications for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. He appears in the documentary feature Code of the Freaks which was released by Kino Lorber in virtual cinemas July 17-24 and available on DVD August 4, 2020. On September 25, 2020—for the second time—he’ll curate an evening of programming on Turner Classic Movies devoted to notable, historic and authentic depictions of disability in classic film including the TCM premiere of Titicut Follies.

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