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The Documentary Changing Hollywood’s Perception of People with Disabilities

CinemAbility:The Art of Inclusion is a documentary that discusses how Hollywood has portrayed members of the disability community for the past 120 years. It uses clips in both old and recent films to shed light on portrayal and stereotypes—and discusses how these impact the disability community today.

What Inspired This Disability Focused Film?

The award-winning film’s director is Jenni Gold, the first female wheelchair user in the Directors Guild of America. Her impressive achievements include winning an Emmy, being a co-founder of Gold Pictures, Inc., and producing a number of films and web series. As a filmmaker whose life was consumed by Hollywood, she was driven by the fact that a documentary on the historical portrayal of the disability community has never been done.

CinemAbility is in part a love letter to Hollywood, an industry that has consumed my life, and partly a wake-up call. Growing up as a wheelchair user, I found many of the representations of people with disabilities on screen to be confusing. I remember every year my family would watch Affair to Remember when it aired on TV and I always found it odd that after Deborah Kerr became a wheelchair user she could no longer pursue the man she loved. I remember hating the sappy Movie of the Week style representations in the ’70s and ’80s. The person in the wheelchair was always syrupy sweet or angry and bitter,” she said in a statement with Deadline.

Her childhood frustrations with the film industry later compelled her to spend a decade interviewing A-list actors and industry insiders such as Ben Affleck, Jamie Foxx, Geena Davis, Helen Hunt, Kyle MacLachlan, and Daryl Mitchell among many others—and start a conversation on disability portrayals.

Overview of Disability Portrayals 

CinemAbility makes a convincing case that when Hollywood casts people with disabilities—the purpose was to shift the public’s consciousness. For example Raymond Burr used a wheelchair in the detective series Ironside, and Susan Peters played a wheelchair-bound villain in The Sign of the Ram (1948) after a gunshot wound led her to become permanently paraplegic. But this isn’t enough.

Despite the efforts of Hollywood to promote diversity, there are few opportunities for disabled actors as well as available roles in Hollywood. Peter Farrelly even scolded filmmakers and casting directors for their unconscious bias. He said, “it doesn’t say in parentheses ‘good hearing’ or ‘excellent eyesight’ or, you know, ‘with no limp’ … but what a casting agent and a director and a producer sees is an able-bodied person.”

Others interviews were a decade old, but this didn’t make the insights seem outdated. Instead, it highlighted the complicated history of how Hollywood depicts individuals once seen as handicapped. The documentary builds a conversation around these stereotypes which unfairly pigeonhole disabled individuals on the basis of their differences.

Changing Perceptions for Disability Inclusion

How do you solve the problem with portrayals? CinemAbility seems to be the first step. Gold discusses that the aim of the film was to reshape perceptions in a fun and entertaining way. “People normally hear about a disability-themed documentary and they run for the hills, but those brave enough to take a peek are shocked to find they have a good time and laugh while also being challenged intellectually. As a storyteller, that is my entire goal,” Gold says.

Although Hollywood is making progress in terms of casting and inclusion in other categories, much has to be done. Media plays a huge role in how the public sees disabled citizens. We can only hope that this insightful documentary will increase awareness and opportunities for disabled actors.

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