It’s time for actors with disabilities to tell their own stories.
The Academy makes no secret of its affinity for movies about disability. Films centered around disabled characters, despite their infrequency, consistently earn Best Picture nominations. This trend will continue at this year’s Oscars, where The Shape of Water, which has a mute protagonist, leads with thirteen nominations. Portraying disabled characters also has a high rate of return for actors: since Dustin Hoffman won for his performance as an autistic savant in Rain Man, roughly half of Best Actor Oscars have been awarded to portrayals of individuals with disability or illness.
The Academy’s fondness, however, isn’t without stipulations—only by meeting certain requisites can a story with disabled characters be considered worthy of recognition. The disabled protagonist can only a) be a real, successful figure (Ray, The Theory of Everything) or b) inspire its non-disabled audience (Forest Gump, My Left Foot). These films admittedly can sometimes play an important role in advancing disability discourse because they humanize people with disabilities by depicting them as protagonists (instead of caricatural side character or comic relief) and helping viewers to better understand the nature and experience of disability; this kind of empathy can often be a precursor to more concrete social change. But nearly every Oscar movie about disability shares one central issue: none of them feature any disabled actors. This results from a lack of opportunities for disabled actors in the first place and the Oscars’ positive reinforcement for non-disabled actors who play disabled characters. If amassing empathy is the first step towards raising societal consciousness, then expanding representation is the crucial next one.
In their 90-year history, the Oscars have only recognized two disabled actors. In 1947, Harold Russell won Best Supporting Actor for his work in The Best Years of Our Lives (which also took home Best Picture), where he played a battered veteran who lost both his hands in the war. Russell himself lost both hands during his time in the Army, and brought his lived experience to the role; his win makes him one of only two non-professional actors to receive an Oscar. In 1987, deaf actress Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her star-making turn in Children of a Lesser God, in which she played a young janitor at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing who falls in love with a hearing speech teacher.
Both of these performances are emblematic of the success of which disabled actors are capable when given the opportunity and the platform. But one year after Matlin’s win, Dustin Hoffman’s win for Rain Man set a precedent in which non-disabled actors’ feats of performative disability became Oscar gold, sending actors flocking to play disabled characters in hopes of snagging an award. This, obviously, is not ideal, and often results in mistellings and misrepresentations of the disabled experience. But in solving this problem, we aren’t without a roadmap.
When disabled actors tell their own stories in film, two forms of positive representation can result: dignifying representation and normalizing representation. In instances of dignifying representation, disabled characters are played by actors that shared their disability, enabling people with disabilities to tell their own stories, without having it filtered through non-disabled actors and writers. However, these roles are often defined by disability, which can either result in a story that is realistic or reductive. Normalizing representation, on the other hand, refers to when disabled actors play characters that are not contingent on their disability.
The performances in The Best Years of Our Lives and Children of a Lesser God are excellent lessons in dignifying representation. Peter Dinklage’s breakout performance in The Station Agent also remains a hugely successful and nuanced portrayal of disability, in which his character is contingent on his dwarfism, but is still a fully-formed and exceptionally depicted. Normalizing representation, on the other hand, is more difficult to find in film. Dinklage’s role as a tabloid reporter in the sweet but flawed 2008 rom-com comes to mind as a replicable example. His dwarfism has no bearing on his character; it is never even acknowledged.
Cinematic equity depends on a healthy balance of both dignifying and normalizing representations of disability in film. Luckily, representations of both kinds have been proliferating within the television landscape. Dignifying representations have been showing up with an increased frequency within the past decade. RJ Mitte, an outspoken advocate for disabled actors, paved the way for depictions of cerebral palsy as Walter, Jr. on Breaking Bad. Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, and Gaten Matarazzo, who has cleidocranial dysplasia, have also been making waves on the hit series Speechless and Stranger Things, respectively. Normalizing representations are also slowly creeping onto television. Marlee Matlin’s series-long appearances as quick-witted pollster Joey Lucas made for some of the best moments on The West Wing, and wheelchair user Darryl Mitchell was recently made a regular on NCIS: New Orleans, where he played an investigative computer specialist.
Oscar recognition tends to move with baby steps, so some patience is required—first for films to be made with disabled actors, and then for those films to get awards. But we have precedents to build from, and we have seen how successful actors with disabilities can be when given the proper platforms. The Academy should first reevaluate its taste for performative disability, and reexamine Harold Russell and Marlee Matlin’s wins not just as flukes, but as glimmers of the rich possibilities of equitable filmmaking. And for non-disabled actors who are keen on playing people with disabilities—perhaps look for your Oscar bait elsewhere.