I was born with spina bifida and I love movies. These things have always been true. Yet, I never saw myself much on movie screens, unless you count something like Forrest Gump. My lumping myself in with a character who, in fact, is mentally challenged, is purposeful, because it seems both audiences and creatives alike put people like me in to neat little boxes, as if we’re in a club that holds monthly meetings in funny hats.
However, the diversity of disability is wide and colorful, containing an array of experiences, both physical and mental, that are worth your time as a writer.
Because TV and movies so often get it wrong (see: Me Before You for one recent disaster), I thought I’d offer a few correctives to the images and stereotypes, so that moving forward you writers out there might have a more dynamic approach if ever you were to include disability in your work.
No. 1 — STOP BEING CUTE
I like Forrest Gump. It works. But what always bothered me about that movie was the near-magical element to that character’s mental disability. The physically and mentally challenged often come off as adorable pets in stories. There is a tendency to view those with disabilities as weak, neutered angels who need your pity. While I don’t mind the occasional bit of sympathy, it robs us of power and edge, which is what character in any script demands. Don’t be afraid of making your guy or gal thorny. If the character has an attitude, it puts her at odds with the world and therein lies rich conflict.
A perfect example is Scott Frank’s brilliant The Lookout, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a man with a traumatic brain injury who gets involved with a band of thieves. That character, and Frank’s writing, make little apology for his anger and confusion, placing him in a scenario where he must be resourceful to fight his way out. There is no preciousness even close to this movie. Your work, should you include disability, should reflect the same.
No. 2 — THE “SAD BASTARD” APPROACH
Movies and television tend to view disability as some teary-eyed calamity wherein life is so hard the character who is “afflicted” won’t even leave the house because, “Oh, the world has cursed me and condemned me to a friendless, sexless existence in this abandoned parking garage!” Most of us lead full lives full of friends and sex, just like you, and that never gets reflected. And if you do see someone in a wheelchair and they do look sad, maybe it’s because his mom died or his boyfriend dumped him, not because he can’t wiggle his toes.
And because it’s the elephant in the room, depression is a real thing, and it touches a lot of people. The problem with this is the world – or more to the point, writers without disabilities – sees that a default setting. Take Artie (played by Kevin McHale) from Glee. Here’s a kid in wheelchair who in one episode fantasies about rising form his chair and dancing. The belief is this will make him happy or whole. Might it be possible to be in a wheelchair, dance, and be happy? Yes, it is, but that never gets shown. Wholeness is a matter of perspective and that perspective should be interrogated in order to deepen the work.
No. 3 — THE DISABILITY CLUB
We’re not the same as each other. Spina bifida is not the same as cerebral palsy is not the same as Down Syndrome is not the same as Asperger’s…and on and on. There is a whole world of awesomeness out there waiting to be explored for your own creative gratification. The differences can be huge and only make your story more dynamic, because how a person with autism reacts to being hunted by the cops for the murder of a school bully is different than how I reacted all those years ago. I am kidding and already wrote that script, so keep working.
Specificity breeds universality. Go watch writer/director Neal Jimenez’s The Waterdance, the single best American film about disability made in the past 25 years. It’s about men dealing with traumatic injuries in a rehab hospital. The remarkable thing about it is how it parses out the mundane aspects of mobility or self-care in everyday living with disabilities, such as how sex might look and feel like for the paralyzed. These details would make it clear to anyone that often we are concerned about the same things. We have the same desires and needs, just different ways of achieving them. And the wide range of disabilities makes for a wider range of stories.
No. 4 — INSPIRATIONAL PORNOGRAPHY
Sounds dirty, and it is to us. There is a pervasive cultural attitude which suggests if you’re, say, a person with multiple sclerosis, and you go to the store to buy milk, the very fact that you did this rather ordinary task is somehow imbued with an inspirational glow. What’s worse, the able-bodied world (I hate the binary nature of that phrase, but that’s another story) takes this as invitation for them to feel better about themselves because a) they saw us getting the milk and b) isn’t that amazing? No, it is condescending. You don’t get a medal for shopping, do you? Neither should we. So remove from your stories the notion that simply existing is an accomplishment.
What feeds into disabled-living-as-heroism is that we become symbols, easily digestible images for your gratification. But we are not symbols. What Me Before You gets so epically, insultingly wrong is the narrative hinges on the audience not seeing its paralyzed douchebag hero as more than his wheelchair. IF you did it’s assisted suicide ending would not work to slap this tears from your eyes. It is a movie that can only see this guy as an image, not a real person. It’s not unlike actual pornography: dispensable and cheap, and your writing and characters deserve better.
No. 5 — EMPATHY, EMPATHY, EMPATHY
Introduce yourself to someone who is physically or mentally challenged. Get to know us. You will find that as we take all the time you need out of out of our disabled-y days to explain the glories of our conditions that we’re not as unlike you as you think. Empathy only makes art better, in fact makes it what it is, and for that you’ll find a new way of writing and a new way of seeing. What makes The Sessions so beautiful is director Ben Lewin’s ability to identity with his main character, a man in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity. Lewin’s sense of empathy makes a moment of intimacy between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes to where they are just two people looking to connect, disability be damned.
BUT, please don’t ignore the disability, either. There are some in the community who would rather you focus on other things, which is fine for a little while. But you cannot ignore our bodies any more than we can ignore your “you-ness”. But disability is never the whole story. Yet, I am positive that spina bifida made it possible to talk to you, the reader, right now because my plot unfolded a certain way, and isn’t that a wonderful thing?
So, don’t be afraid to look us in the eye. We’re more alike than we are not, except we have better parking. Give it a shot. Reach out. Learn. Have those teachable moments wherein art becomes truly inclusive and the world is really diverse. That is a story worth telling.
We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
32 Replies to "On Writing Disability"
Anthony Crosson April 14, 2017 (6:28 am)
Awesome…. you strengthened my idea.
Louise Johnson April 14, 2017 (6:50 am)
Thanks for the article, Michael. I learned a lot from it.
Zainab Amadahy April 14, 2017 (7:16 am)
As someone who always includes disabled characters in my novels, I seriously appreciate this article.
Nathan April 14, 2017 (7:47 am)
Thank you for writing this article. Like you, I was born with Spina Bifida, too. I’ve also noticed all the same trends in movies and television that you mentioned. I’m working on several writing projects including a few movie & tv scripts as well as a book. I’ve made it a point not only to include characters with the same disability that I have (when it’s right for the story) but also to ensure that I avoid those stereotypes and tropes.
Zaid Mumin April 14, 2017 (7:49 am)
Very powerful article! Thank you for your bold writing, insight, and saying what needed to be said a very long time ago. It will definitely influence my writing and opened my eyes to creating more characters with disabilities in my scripts. As a minority, I love diversity in stories and adding well rounded characters with disabilities is indeed diverse.
Richard Willett April 14, 2017 (8:14 am)
Great article, Michael. I’ve worked for a few years now on a project with actor and disability rights activist Mat Fraser called THE FLID SHOW, about thalidomide (drug from the 1960s that caused birth defects). Mat starred in the stage version in New York and we’re now trying to get my screen adaptation made. He’s taught me to look out for the very things you mention here. Without ever really analyzing why, I’ve loved THE LOOKOUT, THE SESSIONS, and (especially) THE WATERDANCE (and have been chasing their filmmakers with my script!) for years. Thanks again for sharing these insights.
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (1:10 pm)
Good on ye. I’ve met Mat. He’s good people.
Kathi Twomey Wahed April 14, 2017 (8:43 am)
Great article! I appreciate Michael’s insight & humor. Thanks for the teaching moment.
SMW April 14, 2017 (9:02 am)
This is everything! Learned and laughed. Sharing – and THANK YOU!!!
Sam April 14, 2017 (10:04 am)
My lover and I have had uncontrolled Seizures for 30 years. And so do the lovers in my film. They both discover the other to be epileptic by accident and live strong and self supporting between the attacks. She and her sister are horse therapists healing children with Down’s. He and his brother are micro-brewers and bike tuners. Everyone loves the outdoors.
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (10:11 am)
Thank you for the feedback. It’s nice to know there are other voices out there who relate or want to relate.
Cobalt Blue April 14, 2017 (10:42 am)
I have never written a single character that was not differently abled. While not all of them are visible or even pointed out on the nose in the story.
I don’t like the assumption this writer makes that writers are completely free of so called disabilities themselves. And that it is assumed that everything that is seen on the screen is exactly how the writer wrote it. People are people, we all have different conditions, It is so not in our control. When someone has a ‘disability’ it can lead to a strength either in that very thing, or something else that makes them extraordinary and worth pursuing as a character.
That being said, prior to my years as a Screenwriter I was an amazing photographer. National Geographic quality, everyone remarking on how great my images are. Then I had an eye exam that changed everyone’s perception of my being when it became known that I’ve had blind spots dead center in both eyes since I was born. I suddenly became the photographer who took amazing pictures even though she’s partially blind. I still see the same, my vision hasn’t changed, but I gradually stopped taking pictures because of that attitude. It is not only disrespectful to everything I’ve ever created, it’s also disrespectful to everyone with visual impairments. You all assume we can’t see when we have blind spots… when in reality we sometimes see way better than you. And others that don’t see through their eyes at all can see what’s going on around them that you miss by being sighted.
And now I struggle every day to preserve my vision. And I say struggle because people treat me like I’m blind. Make comments and assumptions that put me in my place, limit what they will allow me to do, or so they expect. But worst of all they go on rants about how people mistreat someone with their disability, or their loved one with one. All while making webpages harder and harder for people with visual limitations to view. Glaring white backgrounds with light grey skinny type. Then there’s packaging, food labels… shiny surfaces with super small type… for someone with visual difficulties in certain contrast ranges who also has severe allergies I get not only weird looks but people confront me like I am doing something wrong when I use a magnifying glass to read these types of labels.
Next time you tell yourself writers can’t write a character with disabilities because they ‘don’t understand’ remember that you yourself make false judgements. I treat everyone I meet, including animals, like human beings. Not objects to appreciate or ridicule. I don’t see people as their conditions, just like I don’t see them as an ethnicity. I see them and I write them as people. Everyone has obstacles… but reading your milk shopping line really set me off. I have never treated anyone with such disrespect, and I have never written anyone that way… but you did.
And if you saw how I treat pets you would understand that maybe it’s you that needs to change how you perceive things. Forrest Gump Made a very young me realize that people with differences are incredibly intriguing and definitely worth knowing, not ignoring. And I don’t believe I’m an exception.
What we write and what makes it on the screen are two entirely different things. Think of it as the Cast and Crew treating the script as if it were disabled. So when there’s a failure it shouldn’t fall on one person, it should fall on the shoulders of the culture that created it.
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (11:03 am)
I’m not entirely sure what you’re angry about, but glad for your impassioned response. If you are suggesting that people should be seen for more than their disabilities/issues, I agree and I think it suggests as much. But if you are saying we need to not look at disability at all, I disagree. And it is true, in one sense, that I was speaking to those who might not think beyond the wheelchair and took for granted those who write and work with the very issues I’m tackling. However, it cannot be ignored and should not be. I find too many pervasive images that are just plain wrong, let alone hurtful, that get themselves in front of the eyeballs of the larger world. I’m calling for a rethinking at least and a rejiggering at most of how we all take in those images.
And while I agree that the culture/industry at large must be accountable because, you’re right, it isn’t “just one person”, it start with us, the writers, and what we’re willing to fight for to maintain our sense of the truth.
Glenn Gaylord April 14, 2017 (11:11 am)
Fantastic article Michael. Anyone who has ever met you instantly gets that your ornery, hilarious, generous personality shines through. This article validated my instinct to make the disabled characters in my current script as gruff, narcissistic and asshole-ish as they are! Everybody wins! Lol.
Cobalt Blue April 14, 2017 (12:07 pm)
Thanks for that response Michael. I do believe I now have a better understanding of what you were setting out to accomplish and apologize for my unintended ignorance in believing you were blaming writers. Which confused me because of your credentials. I now see it was intended to guide us into an inclusion state of mind in the development process.
I would like to encourage anyone setting out to write a Character with a condition they themselves don’t have, to partner or consult with someone who does. Responsible research can only go so far. As you state, pervasive images that are wrong get in front of eyeballs of the larger world and that’s what people write from… what they believe they know. I have known several people with your condition, a couple of them well, but that doesn’t mean I’ve even begun to know you because you are an individual, not a condition. And if I were to write a script in which you were the protagonist I would definitely need to get to know you better to develop your character and dialogue.
I am grateful for your article and your commentary exchange, and thank you for all you do to make this world a better place for everyone. And again, my apologies for misunderstanding.
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (1:08 pm)
Lilia F April 14, 2017 (12:19 pm)
Great piece, thanks so much. I would also be curious as to how you find time for writing?
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (1:07 pm)
The time finds me. I’m great in the morning and at night, useless mid-day. So, knowing that’s where my strength is, I put aside time to do it. Even if it sucks, I do it.
Alexis Krasilovsky, Professor, Dept. of Cinema and Television Arts, California State University, Northridge April 14, 2017 (1:17 pm)
Great article! May I share it with my screenwriting students?
Michael Dougherty April 14, 2017 (1:35 pm)
George Oti April 14, 2017 (3:04 pm)
Your strength of character has replicated itself in all of us. That’s your greatest achievement through this article.
Kristin April 14, 2017 (4:51 pm)
Mat seems to be channeling a bit of Stella Young in her barrier-busting TED Talk.
One movie that avoids many of the failings is tHEORY OF EVERYTHING. Hawking’s conflict with his wife Jane is NOT necessarily his ALS, it’s her religious conversion and his human attraction to his therapist. Maybe others have a different opinion.
MJT April 15, 2017 (4:56 am)
Keenly observed and beautifully written. Makes me want to dance previously unimagined dances! Thanks for the inspiration.
Karl April 15, 2017 (5:35 am)
Michael, very pertinent article. Thanks! I’m writing a screenplay that centers around a group of people with a disability. I have plenty of people who can and will give me useful notes about the story, structure, etc. But I know fewer people who have insight on the art and craft of screenwriting who can also give me feedback on the issues you raised about the characters involved. It’s not that I have trouble finding people with the particular disability involved, or experts in that medical field, but it would be super helpful if they also had a writing and/or film making background. Any thoughts or suggestions on tracking down those experts?
Michael Dougherty April 16, 2017 (8:48 pm)
I’m not sure about that, but there is Hollywood, Health & Society, which meets somewhere at the intersection of art and medicine.
While I’m not sure this is a bullseye, I’m sure you would find like-minded artists to interact with in one way or another.
Karl Gevecker April 19, 2017 (7:46 am)
Thanks, Michael! I’ve just spent an hour looking at the HHS website and I’m sure I’ll find people and information that will help a lot as I develop my screenplay. I appreciate you putting me onto that group. I was very impressed with the amount of influence and help HHS has had on so many projects and, in turn, audiences. A great resource. Thanks again.
Tihemme April 15, 2017 (3:11 pm)
Thanks for this. I’d love to see more writing reflective of casting actors with disabilities.
Maureen April 15, 2017 (5:47 pm)
Excellent article. My sister has cerebral palsy and is a writer. She has always attempted to keep me aware and on track. And since her vast extended family and circle of friends includes a vast array of disabilities, she has likewise given me greater insight into the humanity, needs, wants, angers, differences and likenesses we all share, face, disagree with, become militant about.
It’s about life and living. Inclusion.
Thank you for looking reality in the face, on paper/screen, and out into the world of the arts.
Paul Chitlik April 17, 2017 (6:07 pm)
Great article, Michael. It really should be in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, too.
Christian O'Reilly April 18, 2017 (3:22 pm)
Terrific article, Michael. I had the privilege of working with a group of actors with intellectual disabilities (ID) in Galway, when commissioned by Blue Teapot theatre company to write a play exploring the obstacles faced by people with ID to having relationships. The play, ‘Sanctuary’, has now become a film. It premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2016 and was also screened at Dublin International Film Festival, where the Blue Teapot cast won the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award. It was recently screened at the Reelabilities Festival in New York, among others. Here is a link to a review: http://filmireland.net/2016/09/05/review-of-irish-film-at-galway-film-fleadh-sanctuary/
Brian Stavig April 24, 2017 (12:31 pm)
I am a man who ‘acquired’ a severe traumatic brain injury in 1981, when I was 18. I have written a book, “The Ex Left Hander” and a screenplay about about living with this injury. As you said, there are very few people who’ve explored that part of life. I appreciate what you’ve done. Perhaps you could help me to get my movie out.
Baden Gilmore June 16, 2017 (9:03 am)
Michael, great article. I have a script where the main character has a disability. It set in Australia in 1880 and is a true story. Would you like to read it? Regards, Baden