“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone.” Martina Navratilova
Tennis great Martina Navratilova had it right: disability is a matter of perception. The only problem is, what if everything we see regarding people who have different abilities is negative?
For example, in the movie Cake, Jennifer Aniston is a chronic pain patient who is hard to love. She is prickly, seemingly ungrateful, and not nice to the people who care for her. As her story unfolds, these traits are more understandable, but her character shouldn’t be the only image of someone with chronic pain or disability on the big screen.
Here are seven examples of characters and people who are changing the way we look at chronic illness and disability in pop culture.
1. How To Train Your Dragon
It may seem strange to begin the list with cartoon characters in a children’s movie, but childhood is where early perceptions of people with disabilities are formed. How To Train Your Dragon features three main characters who are amputees. These characters don’t fall into clichés about what they can and cannot do. Their lives are intertwined in such a way that they help each other, work together, and generally do everything non-amputees do (and more!). While we can safely say that dragons and their ilk are not going to appear anytime soon, this animated movie is a great way to normalize a disability that children (and many adults) might find curious.
The ways in which the characters deal with their amputations also speaks to the amazing advances in prosthetic technology (Gobber in particular has many different prosthetics, including a beer stein for drinking). The disability in this movie is a non-issue, and that is a great message to give to kids.
2. 127 Hours
This movie about real-life climber Aron Ralston tells the story about how he became trapped between two boulders in the middle of the desert and had to amputate his own arm with a pen knife. The movie begins with an exuberant and highly physical Ralston heading into the desert to hike and ends with his rescue after his self-amputation.
While the movie does not highlight how he handled life after this experience, it is a good illustration of the trauma that can lead to amputation (such as an accident or in a war zone) and the mental fortitude that it takes to make it through the actual event. Those with disabilities are often viewed in terms of their physical disability, discounting the mental strength that it takes to come through such trauma. This movie highlights Ralston’s extraordinary ability to do what he had to do in spite of the pain and horror he must have felt doing it.
It is also worth noting that in real life, Ralston has continued to climb, summiting all 53 of Colorado’s “fourteeners” (mountains 14,000 feet and higher in elevation). This is not a person who has let disability define his life.
3. Forrest Gump
Lieutenant Dan is perhaps one of the most human characters in the list thus far. He is a regular guy who defies his family’s long history of death in battle by merely losing both of his legs in Vietnam. His struggle to deal with this is documented in the movie. Gary Sinise portrays Lieutenant Dan with compassion, humility, and humanity.
While not everyone who suffers a traumatic accident leading to a lifelong disability will follow the same road as Lieutenant Dan, the struggles with anger, depression, and addiction are very real for those who become suddenly disabled. There is no sugar-coating, and although Lieutenant Dan is not the star of the film, his impact on Forrest is apparent.
4. Forrest Gump
That’s right, the same movie twice. Why? Because the eponymous lead of this film is arguably one of the most positive portrayals of someone who is defined by society as mentally challenged. Over and over Forrest is told he is not smart, and he himself even says, “I am not a smart man.” Yet he makes millions, meets presidents, becomes a father, and marries the love of his life. Forrest Gump’s life may seem fantastical and improbable, but his message of love, acceptance of other people, and focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses make him a positive role model for everyone.
5. As Good As It Gets
Not all disabilities are readily apparent, and As Good As It Gets tackles the invisible disability of mental illness. Jack Nicholson portrays an introverted author who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. While Nicholson’s character is cantankerous and seemingly unapologetically homophobic, his journey in the film, both literal and figurative, help him to open his eyes to new possibilities.
While on the surface this may not seem like a positive message, this movie looks at the struggles that different people face – single parent, homophobia, OCD – and puts them on the same level. Instead of looking at OCD as the worst of the issues faced by the main characters, it is just something else to learn to work with. Acceptance is a theme in this film, and that is a great message to put into the world.
6. Viktoria Modesta
Moving from the big screen to the small one, Viktoria Modesta is a British pop artist who voluntarily had her leg amputated below the knee to improve her mobility that had been hindered due to a birth defect. Channel 4 in London has chosen to collaborate with her because their own message is one of including alternate perspectives. Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4 pointed out how this could help further the channel’s mission while increasing awareness and acceptance:
“Channel 4 was born to be different: to offer alternative perspectives and to take creative risks, especially with new talent. In a world of homogenized pop, Viktoria is those values in a nutshell. We are honoured to help her develop her career and change attitudes to disability in the process.”
If you haven’t watched her music video yet, definitely check it out.
Finally, no self-respecting list of positive portrayals of disability in pop culture could leave out Gregory House, MD, the snarky pain-pill addict with chronic pain and a devastating ability to figure out complex medical mysteries. He is all-too human and all-too imperfect, but his chronic pain and addiction are not necessarily the reasons why.
Again, this may not seem to be positive, but the message here is that people of all abilities are complex. People with disability are not their disability; they are a combination of many things. For too long, a person onscreen who was disabled was just that disability. House portrays someone who is struggling with more than just a disability. Not always with grace, not always with courtesy, but always as a human being.
Perception of disability is changing in pop culture. For more portrayals of disability in film and TV, use Vanderbilt’s search tool for specific disabilities, or check out Listal’s 46-item list.