Combating Stereotypes: Why Movies About 'the Disabled' Stink

Iconoclast and author Mike Murphy wants a revolution in the way characters with disabilities are portrayed

Article Highlights:
  • Author Michael Murphy is frustrated by the shallow portrayal of people with disabilities in movies and books, and encourages writers and artists to shape the film and literary markets by creating their own multidimensional characters.
  • "The disabled are people, and people — not stereotypes — are what drive all good stories," he says.
by Michael P. Murphy on April 9, 2012 - 12:03pm

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 2

I love movies. Always have, always will. I pumped my fist in the air (metaphorically) when Captain America beat the snot out of Red Skull, held my breath (also, metaphorically) while Frodo and Sam scaled Mount Doom, and teared up when the starship Enterprise first appeared in the latest Star Trek movie.

Mike Murphy
The author at the movies.

These three movies — like many great movies I’ve enjoyed — share two qualities:

  1. They were rousing adventures that spoke about honor, courage and all that is noble in the human spirit.
  2. None of them featured physically disabled characters.

Do I, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), need to point that out?

And do I need to explain the reason?

Simple: Movies about the disabled stink.

Always the catalyst, never the protagonist

I watched a movie on cable recently where an athlete suffers an injury that leaves her paralyzed and ventilator-dependent, plunging her into a deep, understandable depression. After about half an hour, my inner voice groaned, "Here we go again." Yet another hackneyed story about a "courageous" disabled person who learns to live and love again, after discovering what an "inspiration" she is to everyone she knows.

Yawn.

In movies, on TV or in novels, physically disabled characters are rarely the protagonists. Rather, the disability is the catalyst which propels the main character — generally a photogenic, able-bodied person — to act/react/grow/save/emote/empathize. The token disabled person serves one dramatic purpose: moral impetus for the hero, who gets top billing.

Movies I’ve seen featuring disabled characters usually fall into two scenarios:

  • accident victims, such as in "The Waterdance," "The Other Side of the Mountain," or "Passion Fish"; or
  • combat veterans, as in "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Coming Home" or "Avatar."

Don’t bother looking for characters/actors with a neuromuscular disease. Our physical appearance and, in some cases, speech impediments are anathema to the superficial gatekeepers of showbiz, unless, of course, it’s to make a brief "heartwarming" plot point.

I doubt that I’m alone in preferring entertainment to depressing melodrama. Instead of an endless string of sappy movies about disabled characters dying at Christmas and the like, why can’t we see people like ourselves in a zany, Monty Python-style comedy, a real love story, or a testosterone-charged action movie like "The Expendables"?

Coming soon to a theater near you …

Not sure that a disabled character would work in a piece of popular fiction? OK. Let’s pretend that the theater lights have gone down, and we’re about to see some coming attractions.

Action movie: Terrorists killed his family, and thought that his wheelchair would keep him from taking revenge. That was their big mistake!

Science fiction: (one of those post-nuke, Mad Max-type movies): In a world gone mad, only one man has a wheelchair that can outrun the cannibal mutants of the radioactive wasteland.

Kid movie: He was in a wheelchair, but a friendly dragon taught him how to fly.

Chick flick: She couldn’t walk, but she and her girlfriends could still shop!

European "art house" film: In Paris, a lonely book dealer searches for the meaning of life in a wheelchair. It was all America’s fault.

See? There’s no reason why a physically disabled character couldn’t fit into any of these genres.

Beyond cardboard characters

Since the entertainment industry seems to be oblivious to, indifferent to, or squeamish about presenting people with disabilities as realistic, dramatic characters, I see only one way of rectifying it.

We have to do it ourselves.

There have been disabled characters in thriller fiction before — Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels and the old TV series “Ironside” spring to mind — but in most instances, the disabled protagonist usually does all the cerebral, deductive side of an investigation while relying on a cadre of able-bodied sidekicks to carry out the shooting, fighting, sneaking around … and sex.

I’m all for portraying disabled people as intelligent (another rarity in fiction). At the same time, I’ve always enjoyed macho characters like Mike Hammer, Mack Bolan, James Bond and Jack Bauer. I want to write something similar, but featuring a guy whose disability makes him stand (sit?) out from the crowd.

Two of my self-published novels, Innocence Kills and Suka, feature private investigator and all-around tough hombre Paul Murdock, who also happens to be a paraplegic Special Ops veteran. He’s multilingual, computer savvy, navigates the seamy underbelly of society, and bluffs his way into or out of most tight situations. When talk fails, Murdock knows his way around firearms and is an expert in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting style that I’ve studied for several years and adapted (in my imagination) for use by someone in a wheelchair. Murdock isn’t a hero because he’s disabled. He’s not a hero, period. He’s a human being.

A couple years ago, I completed my first screenplay. Although I usually write either science fiction or thrillers, I chose to write a contemporary drama/comedy: the story of a man who, like me, is a vent-dependent quad with SMA. He’s self-employed, productive, outgoing and edgy. He doesn’t sit around waiting for charity baskets or welfare checks. He’s as independent as his condition allows. He’s in love with a beautiful, able-bodied woman. Not a platonic love. Not pity sex. Love. What’s more, it is a love that is reciprocated by the woman — a concept that many in the film industry would probably find unbelievable, if not perverse.

The physical, emotional and social obstacles our couple faces in building their relationship drive the plot with suspense, humor, violence and tenderness. Most importantly: While the protagonist’s condition creates some unique problems, the disease is not the focus.

The audience is not coddled or coached. The story is not handicapped by any voyeuristic, preachy directed-insight into the disease. No soft-focus lens, emotional string-pulling, melodramatic angst, swelling background music. Nobody’s plucky or overly noble.

These characters are real adults with hang-ups, issues and flaws. The disabled are people, and people — not stereotypes — are what drive all good stories.

It’s time to create ourselves

African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, gays/lesbians and people of various religions all make books and movies for their niche markets. It’s time that we in the disabled community try to do the same.

One of my favorite TV series of all time, "Babylon 5," once had a line of dialogue that I keep in mind whenever I write a disabled character: "We have to create our own future. Otherwise, someone else will do it for us."

We’re nobody’s sidekick, nobody’s victim. Who better than us to define the complex and vital human beings that we are?

Time to combat the stereotypes: Hit the keyboard and start setting things right!

Mike Murphy, 45, of Oconomowoc, Wis., is a frequent Quest contributor. He’s the author of two science fiction novels, To Rule in Hell and Data Streets, and a mystery/thriller, Innocence Kills. Murphy recently became the proud owner of a Blu-ray disc player, enhancing his movie experience.

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