Disability in film

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Question:  Which genre of film has the most work to do in representing people with disabilities in a realistic, non-stereotypical manner?

A. Children’s

B. Horror

C. Drama

D. Comedy

E. All of the above

Answer:  B.  Horror


Since its inception, film has been a generally accurate indicator of prevailing societal attitudes. Early on, portrayals of people with disabilities in film reflected the conservative or regressive attitudes towards disability pervasive in popular culture. But as advances were made in social and legal spheres, representations of people with disabilities in films also evolved and grew.

The portrayals of disability, whether positive or negative, tend to vary between the different genres of film. Comedy is one genre that often employs depictions of disability, historically using it almost exclusively for comic relief. Early films around the turn of the 20th century tended to use disability as a source of humor, having actors without disability representing those with disabilities in an overblown and stereotypical manner. The majority of characters with mental disabilities used slapstick humor.  This trend continued until as recently as the 1990s, where films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994) with its stereotypical portrayal of developmental disabilities was widely accepted. This did not begin to change until the late 90s, where films such as There’s Something about Mary (1998) began to try to untangle the social construction of disability, using actors with disabilities to portray characters with disabilities.

Black and White Photo of Paris with Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral in the foreground.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Even worse than comedy was the use of disability in horror films, a trend that continues to this day. Almost exclusively, disability is attributed to monsters and villains that serve as the antagonists of these films. While it was not a typical film of the horror genre, the main character in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) is portrayed as a monster so angered by his disability and separation from society that he constantly seeks revenge, with other characters looking upon him with either revulsion or pity. More recently, we have franchises such as Halloween, which offers a monstrous antagonist with a psychiatric disability, or Friday the 13th, with its portrayal of another villainous antagonist with a mental disability. Both of these franchises present these characters as personifications of evil, designed to terrify audiences. This trend has not improved in recent years, with antagonists continuously portrayed in similar ways.

The genre of adult drama may be the most prevalent one to use disability to drive plot. Unlike the previous genres discussed however, it has probably seen the greatest evolution in its representation of people with disabilities. In the earlier half of the 20th century, films such as Of Mice and Men tended to portray those with developmental disabilities as violent and aggressive towards others. They were depicted as less than human with  inferior genetic and psychological traits. Conversely, a drastically different portrayal was just as damaging, with the “sweet innocent” appearing in films such as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). These characters were always rendered as childlike and helpless, permanently dependent and evoking pity. Even up to the 80s, films such as Rain Man (1988) served to propagate inaccurate stereotypes of people with disabilities.

However, with significant legal and social change in relation to disability in the 1980s, movies followed suit. With films such as Forrest Gump (1994) and Gattaca (1997) portraying characters with either mental or physical disabilities in an independent and relatable light, far from deserving of pity, we saw the drama genre take a turn towards positive depictions of disability.

Finally, we have the portrayals of disability in children’s film. Though simplistic, they are one of the most influential forms of cinema due to their target audience. Despite the simplistic nature of the messages, however, children’s films still managed to integrate many of the stereotypes of adult genres, in a form tailored to children. We see the revenge seeking villains regularly, such as Hook in Peter Pan (1953). Another archetype common in children’s films is that of the “sweet innocent,” deserving of pity or childish treatment. This can be seen in films such as Heidi (1937) or Lightning: The White Stallion (1986), where portrayals of people with disabilities are used as a catalyst for the development of nondisabled individuals. However, with the change in society’s view of disability, this genre has also changed. More recently, films such as Finding Nemo (2003) take advantage of an educational opportunity to portray disability in a more positive light.

Overall, though many genres of film tended to take a two-dimensional view of disability earlier in the 20th century, this has gradually changed as legal and social norms have evolved. Genres such as drama and comedy have transitioned from using over-simplified, inaccurate portrayals as plot devices and comedic relief.  Recently we see these genres showing disability in a way that explores the social constructions that inform and influence our views. In addition, children’s films are beginning to educate young minds on new ways to view and think about disability. There remains work to do, as genres such as horror remain adamant in their portrayal of stereotypical characters in the same way as before. It will require significant cultural forces to make this shift, but in the end it will mean proper respect for persons with disabilities in a drastically influential facet of popular culture.



Ashby, Christy; White, Julia; Rossetti, Zachary. “Film.” The Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Vol. 1. New York: Infobase, 2009 386.  Print.

Safran, S. P. “The First Century of Disability Portrayal in Film: An Analysis of the Literature.” The Journal of Special Education 31.4 (1998): 467-79. Print.

Smith, Angela M. Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.

“Physical and Mental Disabilities in the Movies”, Media Resources Center, Moffitt Library, University of California, Berkeley. June 22, 2012. Online.

Timmons, Joe.  “Movies with Characters with Disabilities” , University of Minnesota. March 26, 2003. Online.