Entertainment & Culture

Disability and the media: disability in films

In our two-part article about disability and the media, Trailblazers ambassador David Gale shares his thought on the representation of disability on the big screen.

Following my recent look at disability in music and how it is portrayed, I thought the next thing to do was to look at films; those that have either had lead characters with a disability or are about disability.

The most obvious place to start would be Oscar winning films, of which there have been quite a few. One of the most famous is My Left Foot, which was released in 1989 and starred Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown, a man who can only move his left foot due to cerebral palsy.

Over the course of his film and life, he becomes an accomplished writer and artist, all through the use of his left foot. Daniel Day Lewis is renowned for being a dedicated method actor, meaning that on set he remained in character all the time, spending long periods in a wheelchair, slouched in a paralysed state.  Such was his dedication to his role that it resulted in him breaking two ribs.

He also did his research by spending time at the Sandymount School and Clinic in Dublin, where he learnt a great deal about what his character would have gone through in real life. This for me must be the most successful film involving disability. But what other films are there?

Forest Gump is a famous example, where Tom Hanks plays a character with a developmental disability who, during his youth, uses callipers to walk. The story follows his life from school days to being in the Vietnam war.

The Vietnam war leads me onto my next film Born on the Fourth of July, which starred Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, who had a spinal injury from his time serving in the Vietnam war. Key to the film is his work as a political activist against the treatment of severely injured war veterans. This is based on a true story and is a good portrayal of how someone who was able bodied has to come to terms with becoming paralysed.

Another famous example is Rain Man, starring Dustin Huffman and Tom Cruise, who play brothers. The film follows the estranged brothers as they begin building a relationship, strongly focusing on Tom’s attempts to accept his brother’s autism. Amongst this, Tom’s character, who is in need of cash, fast discovers he can use his brother’s talent to count cards in Black Jack cards. This film was highly praised for its portrayal of autism and won the Oscar for best film in 1989.

In the 1954’s Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, James’ character, who uses a wheelchair, amuses himself by spying on his neighbours through some binoculars. This leads to them suspecting that one of the neighbours is a murderer. It’s a great suspense film.


These are all powerful movies, but can we, the everyday people with disabilities, relate to them?

Well, that brings me to a fairly recent film, the 2004 Inside I’m Dancing. The lead character, played by James MacAvo, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and ends up befriending a lad with cerebral palsy. The film revolves around two young men trying to pursue independence in defiance of the institutional living and society attitudes towards disability. This film got mixed reviews but I feel the message it tried to put across was a good one and showed that life isn’t all doom and gloom if you are disabled.

Disability isn’t something most people would think to be a good subject for comedy, but there are a couple of films which spring to mind. The Farrelly brothers in particular have had disabled characters in many of their films such as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, Stuck on You  and The Ringer.

The Ringer, in particular, has a number of disabled characters in it. Johnny Knoxville plays a guy who hates his job and runs up a number of debts. So, as he is good at sports, he decides he will pretend to have a learning disability so he can enter the “special” Olympics and get people to bet on him. This idea sounds offensive and in bad taste, but as this film progresses it turns out the joke is on the him and is not at the expense of the disabled characters.

Most of the cast have learning disabilities and are portrayed in a good light, unlike a lot of films. It even features real-life disabled athletes. The Farrelly brothers have both been praised and criticised for their humorous use of disability. But usually in their films it is able-bodied characters that are depicted in a more negative light and the disabled characters as aspirational. One of the brothers is a long time volunteer with Best Buddies, a group that helps mentor people with intellectual disabilities.

Also a recent portrayal of disability is in the 2099 film Avatar. The protagonist, Corporal Jake Sully, is a disabled former marine on earth who is recruited in the place of his murdered twin brother to operate an Avatar. He overcomes any difficulties as a wheelchair user by spending more time in his avatar body on the moon of Pandora, where the native inhabitants are contacted through remote controlled human hybrids. This is one of the most recent uses of a disabled character in a big blockbuster that was the highest grossing film in American history.

The list of disability in films could go on and on. In fact, here are a few just to give you an idea:

Benny and Joon – 1993 mental illness

The Bone Collector – 1999 quadriplegia

Daredevil – 2003 visually impairment

The Elephant man – 1980 Proteus Syndrome

Girl, Interrupted – 1999 mental illness

The Horse Whisperer – 1998 amputation

I am Sam – 2001 learning difficulties

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Next – 1975 mental illness

Scent of a Woman – 1992 visually impaired

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – 1993 autism

But I want to leave you with one final thought. While your opinion on films featuring disability may be varied, I doubt many would contest that we would all like to see more disabled actors in blockbuster films.

By David Gale

Updated 2024

In recent years, there has been a growing focus on the representation of disability in media, particularly in films. While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in terms of authentic and nuanced portrayals of people with disabilities on the big screen. Let’s take a look at some notable films that have featured disability and the impact they have had.

Oscar-Winning Performances

One of the most famous examples of disability representation in film is the 1989 movie “My Left Foot,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy who could only move his left foot. Day-Lewis’ dedication to the role was legendary – he remained in character on set, spending long periods in a wheelchair and even breaking two ribs in the process. His research at the Sandymount School and Clinic in Dublin helped inform his powerful, Oscar-winning performance.

Other Oscar-recognized portrayals include Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in “Rain Man” (1988), Al Pacino as a blind retired army officer in “Scent of a Woman” (1992), and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014). While these performances were critically acclaimed, they have also faced criticism for having non-disabled actors play disabled characters.

Blockbusters and Mainstream Movies

Disability representation is not limited to prestige dramas. Tom Hanks played the title character in “Forrest Gump” (1994), a man with an intellectual disability who unwittingly influences key 20th-century events. The sci-fi epic “Avatar” (2009) featured a paraplegic marine who operates an alien body on the moon of Pandora. And the superhero film “Daredevil” (2003) centred on a blind vigilante with heightened senses.

While these films brought disability to a mainstream audience, the portrayals could sometimes veer into stereotypes or inspiration porn. Having more involvement of disabled creatives behind the camera could help bring more authenticity and depth to these stories.

Authentic Representation and Disabled Actors

In recent years, there has been a push for more authentic casting, with disabled actors playing disabled characters. The 2019 horror film “Run” starred wheelchair user Kiera Allen. Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds had a lead role in “A Quiet Place” (2018). The documentary “Crip Camp” (2020), co-directed by disabled filmmaker James LeBrecht, featured many disabled subjects and crew members.

Another notable film that positively portrays facial differences is Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker in the 2019 movie of the same name. Phoenix, who was born with a microform cleft lip, embraced his natural appearance in the film rather than masking it with prosthetics or CGI. Off-screen, Phoenix has been open about his cleft lip, helping to raise awareness and reduce stigma around this common birth defect that affects 1 in 700 babies. Other successful actors like Cheech Marin and Stacy Keach have also achieved Hollywood success despite being born with cleft lips or palates.

Comedian and actor Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, starred opposite Shia LaBeouf in the acclaimed indie film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (2019). His funny and heartfelt performance helped illustrate the importance of disabled actors getting substantial roles.

Disability in Comedy

Disability representation in comedy has been more hit-or-miss. The Farrelly Brothers have featured disabled characters in many of their films like “Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary,” and “The Ringer.” While sometimes accused of being offensive, the filmmakers argue that the jokes are usually on the non-disabled characters, with the disabled characters shown in a more positive light. Still, greater input from the disability community could help find the right balance.

Looking Ahead

As the entertainment industry continues to emphasize diversity and inclusion, disability representation will hopefully continue to improve in both quantity and quality. More disabled actors, writers, directors and crew members will be key to bringing authentic, multi-dimensional portrayals to the big screen.

At the same time, allies and non-disabled creatives should educate themselves on disability issues and collaborate with the disability community to tell these stories responsibly. Box office hits like “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Coco” have shown that diversity on screen is not only the right thing to do, but it’s good for business as well.

From Oscar-bait dramas to sci-fi blockbusters to quirky indie comedies, disability representation has come a long way in film. But there are still many more stories to tell and voices to include. As audiences demand more authentic and diverse portrayals, Hollywood has an opportunity and responsibility to help shape a more inclusive society – one film at a time.

Further reading on disability representation in movies and TV shows:

Disability Debrief’s curated library on TV and Film representation, with resources from 18 countries and regions: https://www.disabilitydebrief.org/library/topic-culttvfilm/
The New York Times article “Why the 1932 Movie ‘Freaks’ Is a Touchstone for Disability Representation”: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/26/movies/freaks-disability-representation.html
Netflix’s collection of movies and shows with disabled characters: https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/movies-shows-with-disabled-characters
Disability Horizons’ list of “16 films and documentaries with disabled characters played by disabled actors”: https://disabilityhorizons.com/2024/03/16-films-and-documentaries-with-disabled-characters-played-by-disabled-actors/
Iris’ curated list of films featuring people with disabilities: https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/resources/films/




  1. Hey! You forgot 39 pounds of love – about a guy with Spinal Muscular Atrophy

  2. Love the part in Notting Hill where they stop to include their friend in a dash to the press conference in a tiny car – she happens to use a wheelchair :0)

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