Disabled get raw deal from film world

August 18, 1995

Cinema presents twisted and stereotyped views of the real lives of disabled people, according to Paul Darke's research at Warwick University.

Mr Darke, a postgraduate researcher in the department of film and television studies, says that British and American big screen films are increasingly portraying disabled people through a small number of unhelpful, even demeaning characterisations.

These range from what he describes as "super cripples" capable of superhuman feats, such as Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove - the "physical embodiment of evil on screen".

Mr Darke says such characterisations help to reinforce the notion of disabled people as "others" rather than "ordinary people." He says: "Disabled people are seen either in a negative light or as some sort of super hero. There is nothing in between."

Mr Darke, a wheelchair user with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, says that while the negative stereotyping in cinema is upsetting to disabled people, even the few positive characterisations are at best unhelpful.

Most disabled people do not see the difficulties they face as some individual failing that needs to be overcome by heroic individual struggle. "They see their problems not as a personal failure but the failure of society to meet their needs."

He has little faith in cinema ever being able to deal with the problem. "The industry is geared to making movies about individual struggle. We are never going to see movies that deal with ordinary disabled people and the problems society imposes on them. People want to see action and emotion at the cinema. They do not want to be preached at."

Mr Darke's research shows that there are very few disabled female characters and those that are, are often blind women who find themselves in threatening situations.

He says that many of cinema's "super cripple" figures are depicted as computer geniuses and that this has helped underpin the mistaken view that almost all disabled people can be "helped" by shunting them down computer-based career tracks when the proportion of disabled people with computing talent is the same as for the able bodied.

Mr Darke think the future looks bleak for disabled characters. "Expect more 'super cripples' and wheel chair-bound mad scientists on the big screen near you," he says.

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