How Disability Culture Is Changing Entertainment

One of the biases permeating this country and elsewhere is against people with disabilities. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and organizations like ReelAbilities Film Festival (in particular), those with lofty ambitions of working in the field of arts and entertainment can find the necessary support needed because many recognize the fact that having certain physical limitations does not mean creativity and talent should be stunted.

Founded in 2007, ReelAbilities Film Festival is dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation for artistic expressions and stories of those with disabilities. The festival celebrates and presents films and documentaries by and about people with disabilities. Below is a spotlight of sorts, saluting just a small fraction of gifted people who deserve to fly high above the radar.

The 2019 film The Peanut Butter Falcon starring Florida native Zack Gottsagen is one prime example. Born with Down syndrome, Gottsagen is cast as “Zac,” a boy with Down syndrome who has no family and lives in a senior facility where he eventually escapes to chase his dream of becoming a wrestler. The movie also stars Shia LaBeouf, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Dakota Johnson.

Gaelynn Lea is a folk artist, disability rights advocate, and winner of NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest for her song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun.” What started out as a way to exercise her lungs and diaphragm has now morphed into a music career. Singer-songwriter Tabi, who has muscular dystrophy, blends blues, R&B, jazz, pop, rock, folk, country, and dance. Sean Forbes, a deaf hip-hop and rock artist, got his first drum set at the age of 5 and is able to feel the music through his body.

They may be wheelchair-bound but that definitely does not halt the show-stopping performances by the Kinetic Light dance troupe. Their wheelchairs are mere tools uniquely used to help advance movement in artistic form.

Perhaps due to realizing we live in a world where we can never have enough heroes, real or fictional, Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano joined forces to create a graphic novel titled The Oracle Code. It is a reimagining of DC Comic’s character Barbara “Oracle” Gordon, a young paraplegic hacker wooed into solving a mystery at her rehab facility.

If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain is a memoir written by Erin Clark and slated for publishing in September. Clark chronicles her journey growing up as a disabled child in Northern Ontario to becoming an artist, writer, and paraglider now residing in Spain. Golem Girl, also scheduled for release in the fall, is River Lehrer’s memoir detailing her life growing up with spina bifida in the ’60s and ’70s and being raised by well-meaning parents whose attempts to “fix” her only backfired.

This list of talented people is short of, but the contributions made to the world of arts and entertainment by those with disabilities is large. Everyone wants to see and be represented by someone who looks like them or at least be given their chance to shine.

Back in 2018, one advocacy group found that almost 90 percent of disabled characters were played by able-bodied actors. In an interview with Sky News, actor Bryan Cranston had this to say about his role as a quadriplegic millionaire in the 2017 movie, The Upside:

“As actors, we’re asked to be other people, to play other people. If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual?

“I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that? I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues.”

While progress is forever being made, there is still work to be done — and a balance to be found.

-Sharon Oliver

Photo: Alice Sheppard performs “So I Will Wait” (Kevin Irvine via Wikimedia Commons)

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