Hollywood is finally making strides in showcasing artists with disabilities

With the selection of several films on the subject of disability at the Oscars, Hollywood is slowly moving towards more representation of artists with disabilities.

Oscar nominee “Sound of Metal” starring a deaf rock drummer. A documentary about a hippie camp for young people with disabilities. A nomination for the first film to star a deaf and blind actor.

The selection of the Oscars marks this year a decisive step towards the development of the handicap in Hollywood, but the cinema industry must persevere to maintain its representation at this level.

So far, Hollywood studios “have not done a very good job, but they know it, we are here to tell them,” says Paul Raci, of the film “Sound of Metal”, in the running for the Best Supporting Actor category.

The actor, whose parents are deaf and who himself suffered from hearing loss, believes he is ‘one of those who has to be at the forefront and not let the momentum falter’ . “Remind them of all the deaf artists we have, all the disabled artists, all the geniuses that are out there,” he says.

Marlee Martin the pioneer

The distrust is all the more understandable as this is not the first time that the industry has tried to move forward on the subject before falling back into its old habits.

In 1948, Jane Wyman, a hearing actress, won an Oscar for her role as the deaf-mute in “Johnny Belinda”, a poor casting choice according to Raci, who compares it to “fingernails crunching on a slate”.

A big step forward was made in 1987 with the awarding of the best actress prize to Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, for “Les Enfants du silence”.

But awards for artists with disabilities have remained rare exceptions to the progress made in the representation of ethnic minorities or LGBTQ on the big screen.

“Very often, the handicapped close the march among all these under-represented communities”, deplores Doug Roland, director of the short film “Feeling Through”, selected this year for the Oscars. He himself is valid, but his film is inspired by his meeting with a deaf and blind man who needed help to cross a street in New York.

For “Feeling Through,” Doug Roland cast actor Robert Tarango, who became the first person both deaf and blind to hold the lead role in a film.

With this short film, which has received the support of Marlee Matlin as executive producer, the director wants to make the voices of people with disabilities heard.

A long and difficult fight

A particularly arduous fight in the entertainment industry, where prejudices are “very deep” while people are most of the time not even aware of having them, analyzes Doug Roland.

Disabled people are “often seen as ‘inferior’” and even “almost sub-human,” he says.

Due to a lack of suitable equipment, access to filming is sometimes quite simply impossible for certain artists who are disabled, visually impaired, or who use a wheelchair.

Hollywood stars, including Amy Poehler and Naomie Harris, have just sent an open letter to the studios urging them to urgently hire disability specialists to break down these barriers.

In an attempt to change things, actor Nic Novicki created a film award in 2013 that requires at least one crew member or cast member to have a disability.

“When I started, we were really under-represented, much more than now,” notes Novicki. He suffers from a form of dwarfism and could no longer stand being offered roles whose content boiled down to his small size.

“The Largest Minority”

Also selected for the Oscars this year is the documentary “Crip Camp”, produced by the company created by Barack and Michelle Obama. It focuses on the creation of a holiday camp for young people with disabilities in the 1970s and the determining role that this structure played in the defense of the rights of the disabled in the United States.

“It’s one of the most beautiful and inclusive films I’ve seen,” says Novicki, praising the work of his co-director James LeBrecht, who is in a wheelchair.

People with disabilities number in the hundreds of millions around the world, making them “the largest minority”, says Novicki, who considers that they should have their rightful place in films.

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Hollywood is finally making strides in showcasing artists with disabilities