When I watch movies and TV, I see no one like me—a woman with a disability living her life. In popular culture, disability and chronic illness are almost nonexistent, trotted out to serve only a handful of storylines. These narratives include inspirational overcoming, as in finally walking again while a crescendo of violins makes the audience cry. Or there are those stories of tragic victims who, unable to face life in a wheelchair, die by the end of the movie usually while facilitating the growth of the able-bodied characters. One such tragic-victim story is the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, which I can only describe as disability death porn.
When you are a real person who is living relatively well with chronic conditions and disability, this is both infuriating and exhausting. But it doesn’t stop there.
I have a handy test to measure whether an event or situation is discrimination. Swap out your group of choice—say, disability—with any other minority group. If the result is uncomfortable or cringe-inducing, you have just encountered discrimination. Case in point: No studio would ever claim today that it was too expensive or too time-consuming to cast a Black actor to play a Black character. (Whether they’re casting people of color as often as they could in other roles clearly remains to be seen.) And yet, we see this argument over and over again when it comes to casting actors with disabilities. Not only does Hollywood deem it acceptable to cast able-bodied actors instead, but it’s often the quickest way to earn awards, including the coveted Oscar.
An article in the Washington Post brought this into full view: Since 1988, a third of Best Actor Oscars were awarded to actors playing characters with disabilities. Being an avid Academy Award watcher, my non-scientific assessment is that most of these were often white males and their characters usually died by the end of the movie. There’s Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking, Jamie Foxx in Ray, and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, to mention a few.
Being a disabled woman who has no intention of offing herself, this message that my reality is so tragic that you’re better off dead is hard to swallow. Representation in media matters. Movies, television, books, magazines, and advertising reflect the world in which we live—usually a more entertaining version, but nonetheless ours. When the 20% of the population who live with disability are either invisible or portrayed only as inspiring, or tragic, it perpetuates stereotypes that get in the way of creating a more inclusive society and our abilities to live our lives.
Europe is doing better than North America in this respect. The BBC recently committed to being more representative of women, minority, LGBTQ and disability both in front of and behind the cameras. But being represented on the screen isn’t limited to casting actors with chronic illness and disabilities to play characters with chronic illness and disability. It’s about casting actors with disabilities in any role, not just the disabled character. When writing and casting becomes truly diverse, it will begin to finally show the wonderful patchwork that our world really is.
Are you looking for movies that represent a more realistic depiction of chronic illness and disability? It can be a bit of a hunt and often frustrating one. I’ve collected a list of decent options. Unfortunately, most of the dramas on my list feature characters played by able-bodied actors, because there are quite literally very few films or series with actual disabled actors. They made the list because the story and the character ring true in a respectful way rather than a stereotype. As an antidote, I have also added a list of incredible documentaries featuring real people with real disabilities.
Drama and Comedy
The Big Sick. A very funny love story, following the relationship between a comedian and a woman with an autoinflammatory illness called Stills disease. When she gets sick and is placed into an induced coma, he has to face his feelings and her parents. This movie is written by Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars), based on his real-life experiences with wife Emily Gordon. Gordon is played by Zoe Kazan. Available on Prime Video.
Cake. Both sharply funny and heartbreaking, Cake follows Nina (played by Jennifer Aniston), a woman who lives with physical and emotional pain. This movie pulls no punches, speaking frankly about suicide, pain, and addiction. Available on Prime Video.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The story of the irreverent and provocative cartoonist John Callahan (my personal hero), who shared his experience of alcoholism, recovery, and quadriplegia through cartoons that often sit right on the line between hilarious and offensive. The movie never devolves into saccharine, instead capturing who Callahan actually was. Available on Prime Video.
The Fundamentals of Caring. A grieving man signs up to provide care for a cranky disabled youth, who lives a very sheltered existence. Through a road trip and a bit of romance, both of their lives change. It’s snarky, true, and I loved it. Available on Netflix.
Music Within. A must-watch and one of my favorites, this is based on the true story of disability activist and speaker Richard Pimentel, who was involved in advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Martin Sheen (the British one) plays his friend and activist Arthur Honeyman, a poet and writer who has cerebral palsy. Available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.
The Peanut Butter Falcon. A man with Down syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome!) escapes from the retirement home in which he has been placed. His goal? To pursue his dream of attending wrestling school. On the way he makes friends with a drifter. In other hands, this could so easily have veered off in cringe-worthy, but the filmmakers and actors tell the story with respect, humor, and love. Available on HBO and Prime Video.
The Upside. An American remake of the French original The Untouchables, this is the story of the friendship between two men who exist on the periphery of society—one is quadriplegic, the other an ex-con, who becomes his caregiver. Starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, it’s funny, heartwarming, and not afraid to show some of the truth about disability (albeit cinematically, i.e., less messy). Available on Prime Video.
Walk. Ride. Rodeo. Based on the true story of Amberley Snyder, this follows a young rodeo rider who becomes a paraplegic after a car accident. Her post-accident goals are “walk, ride, rodeo,” but is that possible when you’re paralyzed? It’s not a perfect movie, but the depiction of the grieving process that accompanies a sudden change in health is very accurate. Snyder does the actual riding, which makes the film even better. Available on Netflix.
Words and Pictures. An English teacher and an art teacher at an exclusive school have a competition to decide if words or pictures are more important. Both are struggling, one with alcoholism, the other with rheumatoid arthritis. Decent movie and worth watching for the been-there reality of a scene involving a pill bottle with a childproof lid. Available on Prime Video.
Years and Years. This six-part BBC series follow members of a family, starting one pivotal night and continuing over the course of 15 years of social and political upheaval in the United Kingdom. One of the characters has a disability (played by Ruth Madeley, who also has a disability), but it is not the point of her character and seldom referenced. Available on HBO.
Crip Camp. Another must-watch dive into disability rights history, this fantastic documentary tells the story of the seminal influence of a camp for people with disabilities and the incredible fight through the 1960s and 1970s that formed the basis of where we are today. Available on Netflix.
Becoming Insurable. Chronic illness changes you. This film follows the transformation of three people as they live with different types of chronic medical conditions, including Charis Hill, advocate for ankylosing spondylitis, a kind of autoimmune arthritis. It’s a wonderful movie that shows how much we have in common across conditions. Available on Prime Video.
Pain Warriors. The opioid crisis and the restrictions on pain medication availability has had a profound impact on the lives of people who live with chronic pain. This film shows the unvarnished truth through interviews with people who live with pain, their families, and doctors. Pain Warriors is a terrific conversation starter and shows how the war on opioids has made it even more difficult to create a life with chronic pain. Available on Prime Video.
Unrest. Hit by inexplicable symptoms and told by doctors that her difficulties are “all in her head,” filmmaker Jennifer Brea documents her journey to a diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)—also known as chronic fatigue syndrome—her life with the illness, and her discovery of the ME community. Another must-watch, Unrest has received multiple awards and was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination.