10 Movies and Films

about Disabilities, Accessibility and Inclusion

Like books, movies have the power to entertain, enlighten and inspire.

Media has long been the medium through which we learn about the world, people and circumstances outside of ourselves. Greg Thompson, writer and AODA advocate, says: “The more depiction we see on the big screen, the more accepted the concept of disability becomes.” It’s difficult to accept and understand something you’ve never seen or heard before. Additionally, people with disabilities want to see themselves represented in media, art and society as a whole–– just as everyone does.

There is also a lot of debate within the disability community and Hollywood about how to accurately depict disability in movies, particularly over who should play the roles of characters with disabilities. Should these roles be taken by non-disabled actors, such as Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,” or by people with disabilities, such as Zack Gottsagen in “The Peanut Butter Falcon?” Or does it depend on the circumstances of the film and the character in question? And what kind of disability stories should be told? Dominick Evans, filmmaker and person with a disability, told Forbes:

“Accurately depicting disabled people is the only way that we will see improvements to the treatment of disabled people. Our lives are not all positivity and sunshine. We need to see the good and the bad because people have this unrealistic view of what being disabled is like.”

It was difficult to choose just ten movies that suits everyone’s interests, but we felt the movies on this list are a good jumping-off point. While not without their shortcomings, these movies were selected in an effort to reflect a variety of disabilities, experiences and current attitudes. Other notable films that didn’t quite meet these criteria include Soul Surfer, 50 First Dates, Forrest Gump and Rain Man.

An image of a man and woman holding hands

The Theory of Everything 

(2014)

The first film on our list is “The Theory of Everything,” a biographic romantic drama about the life of reknowned British theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking. The film, which first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, looks at the life of Stephen Hawking: the genius, the man, the husband and father. At age 21, he was diagnosed with a fatal disease – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and gradually lost the use of his limbs. Nevertheless, Stephen Hawking continued on to become one of the most brilliant and celebrated scientific minds in history, advancing mankind’s understanding of the universe.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

(2020)

“Crip Camp,” is a documentary-film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. Defiant, boisterous and at times shocking, it takes a look back at Camp Jened (based in the Catskills in the US), which welcomed people with disabilities in the 1950s and 60s when many mainstream summer camps did not and in an era when people with disabilities were sent away to institutions simply because of their disabilities. Accompanied by historical footage from the camp, the film documents the revolutionary spirit that surrounded the camp, and the complex experiences of many of the campers – many of whom went on to be leaders in the disability rights movement in the United States.

A black and white image of a man playing a piano

Ray

(2004)

Starring an Oscar-award winning performance by Jamie Foxx, “Ray” is a biographical movie that looks at the life of the legendary singer, songwriter, and musician, Ray Charles.  Motivated by his mother and driven by his enormous musical talents, Ray rose from his humble beginnings – having been raised on a plantation in Florida and having lost his sight at age 7 due to glaucoma – to realize his talent in music, and went on to become one of the most successful, influential and beloved music artist of all time.

Close-up image of a young woman in a pink shirt riding a horse against a backdrop of a blue sky

Walk. Ride. Rodeo.

(2019)

For a change of pace, “Walk. Ride. Rodeo.,” is an easy-to-watch movie for the entire family. This biopic is about the real-life experiences of nationally-ranked American rodeo barrel racer, Amberley Snyder. At age 19, just a year after winning the NLBRA All-Around Cowgirl World Championship title, Amberley crashed her truck while driving from Utah to Colorado. Thrown from her truck, Amberley crushed her spinal vertebrae and became paralysed from the waist down but with grit and determination, and the support of her family and physical therapists, Amberley was able to resume riding and return to active competition. An interesting fact about the movie: Amberley acted as her own stunt-double for all the post-crash riding sequences in the film.

A faded image of a man and woman looking at each other in an embrace

Breathe

(2017)

Breathe is the fifth film on our list based on real-life people and events. Directed by Andy Serkis, the actor who played the role of Gollum in the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings, Breathe had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie chronicles the life of Robin Cavendish, a 28-year-old English man who contracted polio in 1958 and became paralyzed from the neck down. Initially confined to his bed and told he had only months left to live, Robin confronted his initial depression with the support of his wife and family. Together with his friends and collaborators, Robin developed a wheelchair with a built-in respirator that enabled him to leave his bed, and which became a model for similar equipment in the future. He also went on to become a vocal advocate for people with disabilities, and one of the longest-living survivors of polio until he passed on in 1994 at age 64.

The Peanut Butter Falcon 

(2019)

“Peanut Butter Falcon” was the highest grossing independent film in 2019. Featuring oustanding performances by Shia LeBouf and Zack Gottsagen, the movie is a comedy-drama about friendships, fortitude and the pursuit of dreams. The story follows the adventure of a young man (played by Zack) who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and attending the wrestling school run by his wrestling idol. He runs away from an assisted living facility and stows away on a small fishing boat. He ultimately strikes up a friendship with the boat owner (played by Shia) while they make their way downriver. Actor Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome, shines in his portrayal of the young man chasing his dreams.

An image featuring the silhouette of a man and woman seated and facing each other

I Am Sam

(2001)

Starring performances by Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and a young Dakota Fanning, “I Am Sam” is a fictional drama about a man who is living with an intellectual disability, who is fighting to keep custody of his daughter after they were abandoned by the mother. It’s an examination of the social prejudices and stereotypes against people with intellectual disabilities (general developmental delay), and their abilities and rights as parents. But where there is prejudice and stereotype, there is also love, and hope in humanity’s ability to change as represented by community members and people that come together to support the father in reuniting with his child.

Still Alice

(2014)

“Still Alice” is an independent drama based on a novel of the same name by author and neuroscientist, Lisa Genova. Featuring an outstanding Academy Award-winning performance by Julian Moore, who plays the titular character, the film depicts – in a raw and brutally honest way – the story of a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s Disease shortly after her 50th birthday. As Alice and her family members struggle with her increasing memory loss because of the disease, the movie also touches on many other issues such as self-determination, suicide and care-giving.

The Fundamentals of Caring

(2016)

Adapted from a book of the same name by Jonathan Evison, “The Fundamentals of Caring” is an offbeat comedy-drama, starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts and Selena Gomez, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. The story follows a writer (played by Paul Rudd) who – suffering from writer’s block after a personal tragedy – becomes a personal caregiver. He gets a job caring for Trevor, a young man (played by Craig Roberts) who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Trevor is sarcastic and sardonic. He shares his fascination with peculiar American roadside attractions with Ben, who suggests a road-trip to visit these venues. Trevor’s anxiety about the trip and the perceived dangers it poses mirrors those of his mother who is overprotective of him. While the movie is not based on true-life events or persons, the movie provides an insight into issues with living with disabilities and care-giving without giving into the over sentimentality or dramatics of many other films.

A Quiet Place

(2018)

“A Quiet Place” is a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction horror film featuring performances by John Krasinski, Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds. Even though the movie is not specifically about disabilities, we have included it in this list due to its central use of American Sign Language (ASL) as the primary form of communication among the characters in the movie, and the clever contrast and examination of sound (or lack thereof) as a means for communication. The plot follows the Abott Family, who  scavenges for supplies and go about their life in total silence while trying to survive in a world run over by murderous blind aliens that track and kill using their acute hearing. Actor, Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf plays the part of Regan, the congentially deaf daughter in the Abott family.

Faded image of Terry Fox running on a long, empty and undulating road

The Terry Fox Story

(1983)

For those who are counting, we know that we said “10 movies” at the beginning of this article so take this final recommendation as a bonus reward for making it this far in the list. Notwithstanding, no Canadian list is complete without “The Terry Fox Story,” a Canadian-American biographic of athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist, Terry Fox. Few other Canadian in history have demonstrated the strength and resiliency of the human spirit and left behind the kind of legacy like Terry has, making this movie a must watch for everyone.

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