It’s Disability Pride Month! Especially in smaller US cities, this celebration often gets overlooked. For this year’s reminder, I wanted to share my top favorite films centering around disability.
Though I was just a tiny pipsqueak when this movie came out, from what I know this film was pretty progressive for its time. It presents an honest snapshot of the strain and sacrifice caring for a family member with a disability or mental illness can often entail without turning the cared-for into a burden or someone to be pitied, which is a delicate but important balance. It also ultimately advocates for independence and autonomy. These two misfits, both with brains that work differently than what is considered “normal”, end up crossing paths in a pretty comedic way that involves a lost poker game. Benny is calm, easy-going, kind hearted, and incredibly knowledgeable on antiquated and obscure film history. He can recall a plethora of dates and trivia about his area of interest, yet he can’t read or write. June is impulsive and intense, and can experience pretty severe psychosis if unmedicated but is verbose and well spoken, an intuitive painter with a genius level vocabulary. As the Benny and Joon grow together along with the other colorful characters in their community, this film shows how we all have strengths and struggles. No one is meant to do things alone. We need all kinds and we need each other.
Another film that is a sort of love story centering on disability, this one is low budget and lesser known. I’ll be upfront, the intro credits look like they were done in Microsoft Power Point, and the acting is a bit after school special. It’s definitely independent. Still, it has over a 7 rating on IMDB, I believe because of the unique view of interabled relationships. The premise involves a love triangle between a group of old friends that grew up together as kids. Very Hallmark, except for one detail … one of the two ladies involved has down syndrome. I don’t want to give too much away, but as the plot unfolded and the male character admitted his unconventional crush, even I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. I was challenged to ask myself why I found this confusing when they are two consenting adults who both have an understanding of their feelings. Challenging is exactly how I’d describe this film, and why I’ve thought of it often since first watching it last month despite the fact that it arguably isn’t the best made film in the world. Some stories just need to be told.
Be prepared to be challenged again by this documentary. Michelle, our leading lady, is so vibrant and interesting you will wish you could hang out with her for a day. She is legally blind and autistic, and has struggled to fit in throughout her life only to finally find her place within the kink/s&m community. This documentary is not about sex. It’s about discovering your identity(ies) (we are all so much more of an “and” than an “or”), it’s about breaking barriers and assumptions, it’s about how people with disabilities are expected to live in a perpetual state of childhood and treated like they are all the same (For more on how people with disabilities can and do participate in alternative subcultures, see the fabulous Drag Syndrome). Seeing someone who loves who they are and just shines (I was an unconfident, self-deprecating mess at 20!) is a message we can all receive and apply to our own lives.
Ok not a movie, but this show is just plain fun and has all the trappings of a hip, witty sitcom but the main character happens to be a gay man with Cerebral Palsy. What makes it so different is the genuineness of the situations and dialog, I’m sure because the starring actor is also the writer. Ryan O’Connell based the show on his own experiences. His mother is another major player in the story who had her own arc around caregiver burnout, yet still having a difficult time letting go when her son wants independence and privacy. There are plenty of deep, sometimes very uncomfortable situations explored, always with humor, grace, and dignity.
Hailing from India, this coming of age story follows a college student who travels to America to attend school in New York. I’m going to get my one gripe out of the way early: I wish they would have cast an actress who actually had Cerebral Palsy. For insight into why this matters when “isn’t the point of acting to pretend to be someone else?”, see this short Ted Talk by Maysoon Zayid. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing skip to minute 7.
Like many at this age, the main character is finding who she is, discovering her sexuality and what she wants in life. She grapples with finding someone who finally ‘sees’ her, but still having romantic feelings towards someone else. It’s messy, she makes mistakes, she hurts people … You know, just like we all do sometimes. That’s kind of the point. Disability activism is also touched on which I think is great, as I wasn’t introduced to that world until I met some very cool people through my work … more about that at the end!
Ok, I had to add an extra one to the list because this movie is so under watched and just one of my beloved favorites. This movie was Taika Waititi’s directorial debut back in 2007, before he was a big old deal after working with Marvel. When people have seen it, they inevitably compare it to Napoleon Dynamite due to the purposeful awkwardness and quirky wardrobe, and this honestly annoys me to no end. This movie is so much more than eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity. Though disability is never mentioned, it’s pretty obvious the two main characters lie somewhere on the ASD spectrum. Amongst the quirk and whimsy serious themes such as grief, isolation, broken family relationships, isolation, trauma, bullying, and betraying yourself to be loved and accepted are all integrated into the more lighthearted moments.
Edit … One more! I was just about to hit post and I thought of another film that I just had add to the list last minute.
This film is a true story about Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke and became almost completely paralyzed at 43 except for his left eye. It is based entirely on a memoir he wrote after the accident. How could he do this when he has what is called “locked in syndrome” (the mind still works as it always did but the individual is “locked in” to a body that can no longer move or communicate) and can’t speak? He and his speech therapist devise a system of spelling out words using a blinking system to indicate certain letters with his eye that can still move. I can’t fathom experiencing something like this. Beyond my astonishment at Bauby’s determination I don’t think I ever realized that speech therapists quite literally save lives. Throughout the film are also Bauby’s personal reflections on how different he became after the accident not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. Leading up to what happened he was … well, a bit of a jerk. He reflects, “Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?” It’s a tough watch, but always a creative soul, Bauby in his own way triumphs through what I can only imagine is unbelievable psychic pain, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly”.
I had the most wonderful experience of hosting a disability pride party this year at my workplace. Our art students with disabilities shared stories and performances, and I could tell from the whispers and reactions of guests that people went home a bit changed, with a new perspective on people with disabilities in our community.
If you’d like to see more of what we do at Creative 360, please visit our online gallery. You can watch some of the performance footage in the Acting Gallery. My favorite thing about art is its power to unlock untapped potential, and its ability to bring vastly different people together.