I hope you’ll pardon me for the over-use of the “roll” pun, but I’m finding it quite entertaining seeing just how many phrases I can crowbar it into.
Apology aside, let me get to the point; there are a few issues with the depiction of disability in Hollywood. While it is wonderful to see films using more diverse castings to portray characters on the silver screen, and the portrayal of disability is usually far from offensive, there are a few inaccuracies that invariably work their way into the mix.
Take “Avatar” for example, a film that chose to be a nerd’s wet dream of intricate graphics over the interesting character development and deep political messages it could have shown. The protagonist is a wheelchair user who, upon the death of his identical twin, is called in to take his place in the avatar scheme. As he enters the military camp for the first time two soldiers can be heard making demeaning remarks about the wheelchair, referring to the protagonist as a “sack of meat”. I have never once encountered such blatant discrimination; in my experience discrimination is much less obvious, and people may not even be aware that they are doing something that inhibits my ability to access a room or perform a task. Similarly, I expect that this is not an accurate representation of the way the military reacts to disability as it is something that can happen so easily in combat that they are regularly exposed to it, although of course I may be wrong.
Another recent film, “The Hunger Games” also fails to represent disability at all, despite it being an important part of the storyline. Those who have read the books will be aware that Peeta loses his leg as a result of an injury inflicted during his first time in an arena. Katniss uses her last arrow to form a tourniquet that, while it results in the loss of Peeta’s leg, keeps him alive. This is completely brushed over in the films, alongside Katniss’s loss of hearing experienced as a result of an explosion that requires expert medical aid to repair, and a meaningful bonding moment between Katniss and Peeta is lost, impacting the later films.
When Hollywood isn’t presenting disability as a cruel and unforgiving circumstance where no happiness is ever felt, it is presenting us as unrealistic super-powered beings with the mental and physical strength of warriors. Anyone familiar with the X-men franchise will immediately realise that Professor X falls into this category, although Patrick Stewart certainly brings a depth to the character that stretches beyond the wheelchair and his mind powers. A more obscure example occurs in “Mr No Legs”; a man without any legs has a wheelchair fully equipped with weapons such as throwing stars, and practically uses the arms of his wheelchair as a pommel horse to defend himself against an onslaught of fully able-bodied men, and the brakes of his wheelchair aren’t even on. While people in wheelchairs are capable of defending themselves to the best of their abilities, it would be completely ridiculous to have a wheelchair so heavily armed that you wouldn’t be allowed to progress more than 100 metres without the police stopping you for a serious conversation. The same goes for wheelchair bombs, which are a clichéd move that I have seen in many films and TV programmes.
Nor are wheelchair users are not some kind of evil genii who manage to use their disabilities to manipulate the world around them, going through trial after trial to highlight their “superpower”. While the plot of “Unbreakable” is much more complex than this, and the characters are far more intricate, I cannot deny that seeing a wheelchair user depicted as an anti-social creep with maniacal ideas makes me uncomfortable.
It would be nice to see more movies where a character’s disability is not a major plot point and the disabled person integrates normally with the rest of the characters, as disability should not be the defining trait of anyone but a mere characteristic. It is no wonder people are uncomfortable and awkward around disability when we are portrayed as either warriors or creeps on the silver screen, never just the average-Joe extra who keeps getting their day ruined by the protagonist’s misadventures.