Television programs rarely feature people with a disability. But portrayals of disability on the big screen are much more common. Cinema has played host to a diverse range of characters with disabilities. Many of these have been mainstream roles. Some films even won awards. There have been many creative, innovative portrayals that were beyond society's expectations at the time.
I have a soft spot for superhero and action films. The characters in these films can do anything. They are not films where you would typically expect to find people with disabilities. But there are many superhero and action films where the main character has a disability. In some cases their disability defines or enhances their super abilities. This is the case even though it can make it more difficult for them to operate in the mainstream world.
A common disability in screen superheroes is blindness. Film writers often exaggerate other senses in characters that are blind. These (usually male) characters become superhumanly able in other areas. In some films the main character's blindness allows them to fight and seek justice in different ways. Films include Daredevil (2003), The Blind Swordsman: Zatochi (2003) and The Book of Eli (2010). They tend to lean on their greatly enhanced hearing. This gives them a very specific edge in the superhero world.
Amputees are also common in action films. In the science-fiction horror film Planet Terror (2007) the lead female character loses a leg to zombie-like creatures. It is later replaced with a specially designed machine gun. She saves the day with her prosthetic limb. Similar stories of prosthetic limbs that enhance the main character's abilities are found in Machine Girl (2008) and Inspector Gadget (1999).
Less visible disabilities appear in films like Iron Man (2008) and V for Vendetta (2006). In these films the main characters suffer from long-term illnesses. These illnesses relate to their superhero status. Iron Man is constantly on the brink of heart failure. His lifesaving mechanical suit helps him save the world.
The X-Men series (2000-2006) provides a contrast. The X-Men films explore the disabling impact of highly visible mutations in both heroes and villains. They also explore the link between social treatment and the good versus evil divide. One character is drawn to the "dark side" with promises of a world in which she will no longer be tormented for the body she was born with. Another is rendered "good" by his involvement with a circus that gives him both community and fame.
True stories about people and their disabilities have a long and popular tradition in cinema. Films include It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
Many films in this category were Academy award nominees or winners. A Beautiful Mind (2001) follows the life of Nobel Prize-wining mathematician John Forbes Nash. The story centred on the tug-of-war between Nash's brilliant intellect and his disabling schizophrenia. The King's Speech (2010) traces the struggle of King George VI who battled a severe speech disorder to lead his people.
The French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) is also based on a true story. It is possibly my favourite true story featuring a character with a disability. It is about a magazine editor who suffered a stroke that left him paralysed except for his left eye. He communicated via blinks and wrote an autobiography. The film has stunning cinematography. It draws you into the character's bittersweet relationship with the world. It shows the beauty the editor notices because of his paralysis.
Not all realistic disability films are based on true stories. Leonardo DiCaprio's What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) is a good example. The recent Black Swan (2010) is another. Black Swan saw the main character give a ballet performance unlike any other. It was a performance possible because of psychosis.
Films involving characters with a disability are incredibly varied. They span all film categories. They also feature many different types of disability and explore different aspects of life with a disability.
My list is by no means complete. Do you have other favourite films featuring characters with a disability? Are there movies about disability you didn't like? What impact has disability in cinema had on you? And what is the one film featuring disability that you think everyone should see? Let us know in the comments section below.