This year, the 2021 Academy Awards include three films that feature people with disabilities - a fact that is both historic and confounding to me, a filmmaker, disability ally and advocate. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law over 30 years ago (July 26, 1990 to be exact) and this year is an outlier when it comes to authentic disability representation by the Academy of Motion Pictures with a grand total of three films.
And the Oscar nominees are. . .
SOUND OF METAL, a nominee for Best Picture and five other awards, tells the story of a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and how he learns to live with it inside a deaf community.
CRIP CAMP: A DISABILITY REVOLUTION, nominated for Best Documentary Feature, shows the beginnings of the disability rights movement and birth of the ADA from a summer camp in upstate New York for young people with disabilities.
And lastly, Doug Roland's short film FEELING THROUGH, a nominee for Best Live Action Short (and also a 2021 Official Selection at the Blackbird Film Festival), features the first deafblind actor (Robert Tarango) in a leading role in a film - again, a fact that I find to be astounding in 2021.
Not that disability hasn’t been recognized by the Academy previously. There are plenty of instances in Oscar history when able-bodied actors have taken home the statuette for playing the role of a character with a disability. Think Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot,” Al Pacino in “The Scent of a Woman,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” or Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” just to name a few. Now consider all the actors with disabilities that could have represented their own experience had the opportunity to play these characters been open to them.
During a 2019 segment of "The Daily Show", host Trevor Noah highlights the anonymous comment of an actor with disabilities in response to the 2017 film THE UPSIDE and Bryan Cranston's controversial role as a wealthy man with quadriplegia.
"I understand what an actor is, I too am an actor," paraphrases Noah. "But I'm an actor in a wheelchair and I never see parts that are leading roles for a person in a wheelchair... And so the one time I see a role [referencing THE UPSIDE] where there's a person in a wheelchair, I think, 'wow, this could be it! This could be the moment where I have all of the tools necessary to play this part - do I get a shot at playing it?'"
The answer is no. Instead, leading roles of this sort are given to able-bodied actors to which Noah says, "when you think of it on the flip side, they never call people with wheelchairs in to play able-body people and, yet, they'll get able-bodied people to play people in wheelchairs..." The full segment can be found HERE and I would encourage you to give it a watch.
According to Tim Gray at “Variety,” the only authentic performers with actual disabilities that have ever won an Academy Award are Marlee Matlin for “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) - also an Executive Producer of this year’s “Feeling Through” - and Harold Russell* for “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1947).
*Interesting Fact - Harold Russell, a double-hand amputee from injuries sustained during his service as a U.S. Army instructor, is the only person in history to win 2 Oscars for the same role. The Academy Board of Governors didn’t think he would win (since he was a non-professional actor), and so they gave him a special Oscar for ''bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.'' Later in the ceremony he ended up winning Best Supporting Actor which he dedicated to “all those thousands of disabled veterans who are laying in hospitals all over the country.”
If you haven't already, I highly recommend watching all three of the nominated films mentioned above as they are great representations of disability inclusion in film. However, know that we are still far from being equitable in the representation of people with disabilities in the film and television industry.
Here are some statistics:
25% of the population has a disability (either visible or invisible)
Less than 3% are represented on Film & TV
95% of those roles are played by able-bodied actors portraying a disability they don’t have
The percentage is MUCH lower for representation behind the camera
I have heard countless stories of actors with mobility issues going to auditions and not even being able to get TO the door (let alone in it) because the casting offices were in buildings that only had stairs. Or any d/Deaf actors that sign and may require an American Sign Language interpreter when none are made available. It’s time to make Hollywood accessible: the spaces, the content that is created, how that content is created, and by and with whom.
There is so much undiscovered talent in the disability community - it’s time to let it shine and start receiving those statuettes.
CARL HANSEN is a filmmaker and disability ally and advocate. His films have won Best Film, Best Director and been nominated for Best Editing in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. His film, “Connections,” is screening in the 2021 Blackbird Film Festival, and features 5 performers with disabilities. Carl graduated from Ithaca College and is currently the director of production for Fox Sports Films.