Hollywood's portrayal of persons with disabilities

On the popular TV show West Wing originally broadcast 1999-2006' [barely mentioning her deafness is] a conscious choice. Aaron Sorkin never intended it to be a part of the show... It was just part of who I was.

Aaron was intelligent enough to know that it was ability that mattered, not disability. Which is a word I'm not crazy about using."

More from an interview with deaf actress Marlee Matlin.

A good film or television program holds our attention and provides the viewer with lasting images. Recognizing the accuracy of these images is crucial when they portray persons with disabilities.

Films and television at their best do not stereotype or add misconceptions about persons with disabilities. Instead a good script gives viewers insight into the real world of a person with a disability. Such a script

  • Presents characters with complex personalities
  • Depicts characters living full lives within their communities
  • Uses cast members such as Marlee Matlin and Mark Zupan who have the disability
  • Addresses actual societal and physical barriers
  • Increases awareness of the disability condition
  • Stays away from portraying characters as excessively evil, laughable, pathetic, or superhuman

If a picture is worth a thousand words, consider the impact of characters in popular films and television programs:

A fish called Wanda
Santa Monica, CA : MGM Home Entertainment, 1998, c1988.
  1. DVD; Dolby mono. Widescreen format on side A; standard format (Modified to fit TV screen) on side B.
  2. Rated R.
  3. In English with optional French soundtrack, and optional subtitles in English or French. Closed captioned.
  4. John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin.
  5. Directed by Charles Crichton ; produced by Michael Shamberg ; written by John Cleese ; Story by John Cleese & Charles Crichton.
  6. Videodisc release of the 1988 motion picture.
  7. Comedy about a sexy American babe who sets out to seduce her boyfriend and partner in crime's lawyer, a polite, poised and nearly comatose Englishman.
  8. Special features include production notes, and a look at the making of the film; original theatrical trailer.

Ken (actor Michel Palin) portrays a stutter in A Fish Called Wanda.  Palin, whose father stuttered, took the role to show the difficulties and pain stutterers face. 

Children of a lesser god
Paramount Pictures presents a Burt Sugarman production ; screenplay by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff ; produced by Burt Sugarman and Patrick Palmer ; directed by Randa Haines.
Hollywood, Calif. : Paramount Pictures, [2000], c1986.
  1. DVD, Dolby mono. Widescreen.
  2. In English and American Sign Language with optional French soundtrack and optional English subtitles.
  3. William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco.
  4. Music, Michael Convertino ; editor, Lisa Fruchtman ; production design, Gene Callahan ; director of photography, John Seale.
  5. Based on the stage play by Mark Medoff.
  6. Originally produced as a motion picture in 1986.
  7. Rated R.
  8. Includes theatrical trailer.
  9. A hearing teacher at a residential school for the deaf meets a headstrong deaf woman whom he sees as a teaching challenge until they fall in love and the teacher becomes the pupil.
  10. Academy Award winner, best actress, Marlee Matlin.

Sarah Norman (actress Marlee Matlin), the deaf student in Children of A Lesser God learns to live her own life.  This actress, who is deaf, is also seen with recurring roles on televisionís Picket Fences, Law and Order and West Wing. [see sidebar]

More about deafness


Five easy decades : how Jack Nicholson became the biggest movie star in modern times
Dennis McDougal.
Hoboken, N.J. : John Wiley & Sons, c2008.
"Unconventional, uninhibited, and unrestrained, Jack Nicholson is both a famous and infamous pop-culture icon known for his romantic escapades, his hair-trigger temper, and his love affair with the L.A. Lakers. Now, this biography gives you an incisive look at the megawatt Method actor with the enigmatic Cheshire cat grin." "Jack rose to fame with portrayals of antiheroes ranging from the demented, demonic, and despicable to characters who were somehow lovable in spite of their eccentricities. He has won three Oscars and seven Golden Globes, but beyond the accolades and his trademark shades is a man who remains largely unknowable. His bad-boy image masks a complicated past, a complex present, half a dozen children, an art collection, and real estate and business empires that have made him one of the world's wealthiest entertainers." "Author Dennis McDougal has scoured public records extending back to the 1930s, spent hundreds of hours in film and public libraries, and interviewed scores of friends, associates, and family who Jack either didn't know or forgot long ago, to create an account of Jack's life that recounts the good, the bad, and the just plain unfathomable." "In many ways, Jack's story mirrors that of Hollywood. For fifty years - from J.J. Gittes to the Joker; Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces; The Shining, Terms of Endearment, and A Few Good Men to As Good as it Gets and The Departed - his life and career reflect the shifting fortunes of an industry that set the cultural pace for America, and then the world. Find out how it all happened, year by year, film by film, through triumph and trauma, in five easy decades."--BOOK JACKET.

Melvin"s (actor Jack Nicholson) obsessive compulsive disorder is used to set the stage for many of the comedic moments in As Good As It Gets.

More about compulsive disorders


Coming home
United Artists ; a Jerome Hellman production ; screenplay, Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones ; story, Nancy Dowd ; directed by Hal Ashby.
Santa Monica, CA : MGM Home Entertainment, [2002], c1978.
  1. DVD, Dolby mono. Widescreen (1.85:1).
  2. In English with optional French or Spanish dubbing and optional English, French or Spanish subtitles. Closed captioned in English.
  3. Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Penelope Milford, Robert Ginty.
  4. Film editor, Don Zimmerman ; production designer, Michael Haller ; director of photography, Haskell Wexler.
  5. Rated R.
  6. Includes featurettes on the film and on Hal Ashby; audio commentary with Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Haskell Wexler; trailer.
  7. Set in 1968. A woman whose husband is in the Vietman War falls in love with an embittered paraplegic while performing volunteer work at a San Diego veterans hospital.

Luke Martin (actor John Voight) returns from the VietNam war as a paraplegic in Coming Home

More about disabled veterans

Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff