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Developing Diverse Stories Featuring Disabled Characters

If you're writing about disabled characters and you are not disabled, develop these characters beyond their abilities to tell an authentic story. Valerie Kalfrin suggests a writer consider a disability as part of a character's makeup, not the driving engine for your screenplay.

If you're writing about disabled characters and you are not disabled, develop these characters beyond their abilities to tell an authentic story. Consider a disability part of a character's makeup, not the driving engine for your screenplay.

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Avengers: Infinity War won’t appear until May, but my family is excited already—and not just because we adore superheroes. Flying high in the trailer above Captain America, Black Panther, Black Widow, and the Winter Soldier is War Machine, aka James “Rhodey” Rhodes. When last seen after a paralyzing injury in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he was learning to walk again with high-tech orthotics.

Rhodey (Don Cheadle) might be a disabled character, but there’s no question he’s still an Avenger, a teammate, a hero.

 Don Cheadle's War Machine (top left) flies high again in the new Avengers: Infinity War trailer.

Don Cheadle's War Machine (top left) flies high again in the new Avengers: Infinity War trailer.

The critical and commercial success of Black Panther and 2017’s Wonder Woman speaks to a hunger for diverse material. Screenwriters love to explore new settings, characters, and points of view, but the warm reception and discussion around these films signifies to a stronger desire than ever to represent people and characters better onscreen.

Disabled characters should be included in these stories, too.

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“Disability is diversity”

“The conversation around diversity often leaves out disability,” said actress Ali Stroker (TV’s Ten Days in the Valley and Lethal Weapon), who uses a wheelchair, in a video from the Ruderman Family Foundation. “It is increasingly important that we portray the world in all of its authenticity and diversity. … Disability is diversity.”

The Newton, Mass.-based organization advocates for disability rights. It released the video in February in a social-media campaign to remind the film industry to portray disabilities accurately and to hire disabled actors. Others in the video include Mark Ruffalo (Marvel Studios’s Hulk/Dr. Bruce Banner), Yetide Badaki (TV’s American Gods), and David Koechner (The Office, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy).

 Yetide Badaki of American Gods in the Ruderman Family Foundation video

Yetide Badaki of American Gods in the Ruderman Family Foundation video

Screenwriting contests also are encouraging writers from various perspectives. WeScreenplay, for instance, has the Diverse Voices screenwriting contest, which seeks stories from writers of color, women writers, writers with disabilities, writers in the LGBTQ+ community, and even writers over age 40. The final deadline is April 15.

Seeing characters with disabilities across a variety of stories is an issue close to my heart. My eight-year-old son has spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord that commonly causes some form of paralysis. He walks with the help of forearm crutches and leg braces and also uses a bright-green wheelchair. But how he moves is such as small part of who he is that at times I think walking is overrated. He’s more than his feet.

Unfortunately, it’s rare in a mainstream film to see a character whose disability is just a trait, such as skin or hair color, that doesn’t completely define the person. Too often, disabled characters are used as devices through which others find motivation or fulfillment.

Tired Portrayals: Triumph Over Adversity, Life Lessons, and Peril

A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that 53 million adults in the United States, or about 22 percent, have some type of disability, including physical and cognitive issues. But that same year, just 2.4 percent of characters who spoke or had names in the top-grossing 100 domestic films had disabilities, according to the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism. (This initiative has evaluated each independent speaking or named character onscreen in the most popular movies since 2007 for gender, race or ethnicity, and LGBTQ+ status. In 2015, it included the portrayal of disability as well.)

I find that mainstream films with disabled characters tend to fall into one of three categories. (I discussed some of this in a piece for The Script Lab about the Oscar-nominated 2017 film The Shape of Water.) There’s the triumph-over-adversity narrative, where a person becomes disabled and then must adjust to this new reality (the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, 2011’s Soul Surfer, 2017’s Stronger).

 Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger

Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger

Then there are stories where someone who is not disabled learns a grand lesson about human decency or handling difficulty through the struggles of a disabled person (1988’s Rain Man, 2017’s Wonder, various love stories such as 1999’s At First Sight and 2016’s Me Before You). Even biopics about truly phenomenal people, such as the blind and deaf author and activist Helen Keller (various versions of The Miracle Worker) and Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis in 1989’s My Left Foot), the late writer and painter who had cerebral palsy, fall under this umbrella because the character’s arc is meant to inspire the audience.

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Lastly, there’s the horror/suspense scenario where a disabled character is in danger because he or she can’t see, hear, speak, or move like the audience at large. Drug-seeking thugs terrorized Audrey Hepburn’s blind character in 1967’s Wait Until Dark while a serial killer held a blind woman hostage in 1986’s Manhunter and its 2002 remake, Red Dragon. Another killer honed in on Denzel Washington’s brilliant investigator with quadriplegia in 1999’s The Bone Collector. Even characters laid up temporarily, such as Jimmy Stewart’s photographer nursing a broken leg in 1954’s Rear Window, fit this bill.

Some of these stories have good intentions, but they can miss the mark by reducing a character who is disabled to a contrivance or a symbol. Granted, that’s not a trope reserved just for characters with disabilities. Savvy filmgoers and critics alike recognize “manic pixie dream girls” or “magical” people of color who drop into a story to help a protagonist (often white, straight, or male) sort out a problem.

 Dakota Fanning in Please Stand By

Dakota Fanning in Please Stand By

Already this year, we’ve seen Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning as a woman with autism who runs away from her caregiver to enter a Star Trek writing competition. In a few months, Joaquin Phoenix stars in the biographical Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on the life of late cartoonist John Callahan, who had quadriplegia. Also this summer, Dwayne Johnson appears with a prosthetic leg in the action thriller Skyscraper. Judging by the trailer, the film will try to wring suspense from his character’s mobility at least once by dangling him upside-down by that leg.

We're all more than any one thing

All of us want to be seen for who we are, now how we’re incomplete, to paraphrase Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the mute protagonist of director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve praised this film for showing Elisa as a fully realized person who is caring, sexual, intelligent and witty before she meets her beloved, an amphibious man (Doug Jones) imprisoned for study in a government lab. Yet others, such as director Justin Edgar, who is hard of hearing and runs the UK production company 104 Films, thought the film once again showed a disabled person as “Other.” He wants to see more filmmakers and actors who are disabled involved in the creative process, whether cast in roles like Elisa’s or crafting stories that challenge stereotypes about disability.

 Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Although our impressions of del Toro’s film differ, I empathize with his weariness. My son often turns heads in public and fields curious questions from other children, such as “Why is he like that?” or “What happened to him?” Sometimes my husband or I will explain that he was born not feeling his feet, just like they have freckles or black hair. But my son tires of this, too. “That’s just how I get around, OK?” he’s said.

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Disability draws attention because many people find it tough to understand—and it lends itself to drama. IndieWire noted that 59 actors and actresses from 1947 to 2015 have landed Oscar nominations for portraying someone with a physical disability or other condition, such as schizophrenia, depression, cancer, or AIDS. Nearly half of those nominees have won.

But developing any well-rounded character is difficult because we all come to projects with our own baggage, experiences, and prejudices. You might think of having a disability as beyond what’s “normal”—but people with disabilities have their own normal. They also have lives that are about so much more than what they can and cannot do, complete with universal frustrations, dreams, aspirations, and accomplishments.

 CJ Jones (left) and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver

CJ Jones (left) and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver

I appreciate when storytellers seem to recognize that. An astronaut (Ariyon Bakare) finds his paralysis on Earth is irrelevant in zero gravity in the underrated 2017 sci-fi horror film Life. A deaf foster father (played by deaf actor CJ Jones) knows his ward (Ansel Elgort) is too good to be a crime boss’s wheelman in 2017’s Baby Driver. The acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad featured a teenager with cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte, who also has cerebral palsy) testing his independence by wanting a sleek vehicle for his first car instead of something sensible. The How to Train Your Dragon animated franchise has a dragon-riding hero (voiced by Jay Baruchel) whose prosthetic leg—and whose dragon’s prosthetic tail—never dominate the plot. Chrissie (voiced by Matilda Gilbert) on the animated PBS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood walks with forearm crutches and pink leg braces, loves to do things for herself, and has a horse named Peaches.

A disabled character is not a story engine

If you’re writing a screenplay with a character who is disabled and you are not, do as much research as possible so that the portrayal is authentic. Talk to people who are disabled. See where their experiences clash with what you think they’d feel. My son doesn’t view how he moves from a place of loss; he just does some things differently. Also, consider whether writing a particular character as disabled sends a message that you don’t intend.

 The author's son zips along in an event at school.

The author's son zips along in an event at school.

Use respectful and accurate language in descriptions and dialogue about disabled characters (unless you want to show another character’s insensitivity, that is). Phrases like “confined to a wheelchair” are irritating because if a wheelchair provides you with mobility, it’s liberating. It’s freedom. My son loves to zoom on his school track like he’s as fast as The Flash. Say “uses a wheelchair” instead. (The National Center on Disability and Journalism has an alphabetical guide that balances clarity and sensitivity.)

Most important, develop disabled characters beyond their abilities. Consider a disability part of a character’s makeup instead of the driving engine for your screenplay. It’s a subtle change, notes script editor, novelist, and screenwriter Lucy V. Hay in her book, Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film, “but one that makes all the difference—and can potentially lead to more three-dimensional and authentic portrayals.”

 Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman created and star in This Close

Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman created and star in This Close

The best friends in the Sundance Now series This Close are deaf (and played by deaf performers Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman), but how people connect and relate to one another is the series’s theme. Everyone onscreen is “guilty of holding things back, of failing to communicate, whether they speak or sign or hear or don’t,” says the Los Angeles Times

We’re all more than any one thing. Give all your characters flaws and complications, areas where they excel and where they fumble, whatever their abilities or appearance. “Make sure they have concerns outside of that,” screenwriter and playwright Lisa Holdsworth notes in Hay’s book. “Let them love, hate, and rage.”

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