Forgive me for being selfish, but after having to use a wheelchair for the last ten years, I asked during my summer independent study at Central Michigan University, “Where are women like me in film?”
After all, according to a May 2002 statistic from the Disability Statistics Center, an estimated 1.6 million Americans who live outside of a health-care facility use wheelchairs to aid in mobility, and of those, women comprise a nearly 58% majority (ucsf.org, 2012).
In part it is because women live longer than men and are more likely to be affected by chronic disabling conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) report that autoimmunity targets women seventy-five percent of the time, and autoimmune diseases affect women three times more than men (phrma.org, 2012).
Also, almost two-thirds of all Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease are women. Conditions like these are known to limit function and mobility and are characterized by a long trajectory of increasing impairment, making the prevalence of women someday becoming dependant on a wheelchair more likely.
This reality of disability makes an average American quite uncomfortable. As Tobin Siebers writes in his book, Disability Theory:
“Only fifteen percent of people with disabilities are born with their impairments. Most people become disabled over the course of their life. This truth has been accepted only with difficulty by mainstream society… Most people do not want to consider that life’s passage will be them from ability to disability. The prospect is too frightening, the disabled body, too disturbing” (60).
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as “a condition which limits a person’s ability to function in major life activities – including communication, walking, and self-care (such as feeding and dressing oneself) – and which is likely to continue indefinitely, resulting in the need for supportive services” (ucp.org, 2012).
This inclusive definition tends to capture both the largest and broadest estimate of people with disabilities, and forms the criteria used to generate a sample of twenty films U.S.-made from 2001-2011 that dealt with disability. Of those 20 films, only seven dealt with mobility impairment. Despite the majority of wheelchair users being women, such a representation of this fact is not consistent in only two dealt with female characters having such a limitation. Those movies were 2002’s Frida and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.
Considering the majority of wheelchair users are women, studying the portrayals of women in films having mobility impairments, one is left to wonder: where are they in U.S.-made films? One must also wonder why are there so few films that deal with women who become disabled as a result of diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus.