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This week I came across a pretty cool offering from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) called “The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film.”  As described on TCM’s website:

Turner Classic Movies will dedicate the month of October to exploring the ways people with disabilities have been portrayed in film. On behalf of Inclusion in the Arts, Lawrence Carter-Long will join TCM host Ben Mankiewicz for The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film. The special month-long exploration will air Tuesdays in October, beginning Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. (ET).

The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film features more than 20 films ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s. Each night’s collection will explore particular aspects, themes, or types of disability, such as blindness, deafness and psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. In addition, one evening of programming will focus on newly disabled veterans returning home from war.

It caught my eye not only because it’s a cool project, but also because back in January I attended an event hosted by I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities) which is a global civil rights campaign seeking equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry and news media, and at that event I sat at the same table as Lawrence Carter-Long.  I had the opportunity to chat with him for a bit and recall being impressed with his energy, strength and fortitude.  Lawrence, among other things, is a major player for I AM PWD, and in the disability community, so I was excited to see a true subject matter expert and advocate at the center of a major project like TCM’s month long event.

It got me thinking back to 2007 when we at Special Olympics put together a round table event bringing together a host of constituents in the disability and entertainment communities for a one day workshop around the inclusion and portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities in mainstream media called “Picture This: Intellectual Disabilities.”  One of the things that I recall from that event was being struck at how sincere the entertainment pros in the room (writers, directors, producers) were at wanting to include and portray people with intellectual disabilities but were often challenged by a general lack of understanding of how to include and portray our population.

How many times have we seen the stereotypical roles of people with intellectual disabilities over the years as a prom queen in the ABC Afternoon Special or the inspiring sports team manager who gets his one shot and inspires a school?  Or how about the negative side of the stereotypes in a thriller when someone with a mental illness or intellectual disability is a menace or a bad guy?

One large theme that came out of that session was the entertainment industry simply needed opportunities to be educated about how to work with actors with intellectual disabilities and how to weave them into story lines as part of the natural fabric of creating a realistic scene.  They needed to know it’s okay not to call them out as the center of attention in a polarizing manner as definitively good or bad.  Think coffee shot baristas, siblings of characters in a show, schoolmates in the halls, fellow passengers on public transportation or as co-workers in a professional setting.

These are all places in our society where, just like everyone else, people with intellectual disabilities are embedded in our lives.  The entertainment industry has, over the years, begun to catch on.  Just a couple of weeks ago on NBC’s new hit sitcom “The New Normal” Eddie Barbanell, an actor with an intellectual disability (and Special Olympics Board Director) had a two scene cameo with a few speaking lines.  Eddie’s character was written in as a fellow gym-goer in line ordering a smoothie.  It wasn’t a change your life, pull at the heart strings hyperbole of real life appearance.  In fact it was even a little off-color, and in the scheme of even that one episode it was mostly fleeting.

The specifics of Eddie’s appearance however aren’t what is relevant.  The relevance is in the opportunity of employment for an actor with intellectual disabilities to play a seamless bit part in a mainstream entertainment vehicle in a way that portrays real life (or as close to real life as sitcoms portray, but I digress).

Those opportunities are more frequent and more authentic today than even five years ago, let alone 15 to 20 to 50 years ago, and that is thanks to the great work of people like Lawrence Carter-Long, I AM PWD and so, so, so many others who work tirelessly for the inclusion of people with disabilities within society’s largest mirror – mainstream entertainment – by educating and advocating writers, directors and producers.

So if you get a chance this month, check out this great event on Tuesdays on TCM, “The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film” and learn just how far we’ve come.  We certainly still have a long way to go, but it doesn’t mean we can’t stop and have a little fun along the way and enjoy some classic movies.

As you watch, be sure to share your thoughts with Lawrence on Twitter: @LCarterLong

Also let us know in the comments here what movies or TV shows you’ve seen that do a good job integrating characters with disabilities (intellectual or otherwise) in an authentic and seamless manner.  Then take it a step further and tell us which shows hit a home run and employ actors with disabilities (intellectual or otherwise) to actually portray those parts!

Happy viewing…

4 thoughts on “Disability in Film

  1. Pingback: Blog Carousel : Disabilities in Entertainment | imanfredonia

  2. Pingback: Disability and the media: Is it an accurate reflection of society? | mgarba02

  3. If my novel Vampire Syndrome ever becomes a film, my main character Jack Wendell has Down Syndrome and frankly it would be a must to have a young actor with Down Syndrome portray him onscreen.

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