Content Note: Mentions of suicide and abuse, brief reference to eugenics.

Spoiler alert for Me Before You (2016) and Temporary Difficulties (2018)

As a disabled person, I am constantly frustrated by how I see lives like mine represented on screen – or, rather, drastically misrepresented.

A 2018 study showed that only 1.6% of all characters in the top films of that year were disabled – compared to 18% in the UK population. These statistics are especially dire considering that they reflect the disabilities of characters, not actors. Indeed, a similar study of the top 10 TV shows of 2016 revealed that, of the 0.9% of characters who were disabled, a staggering 95% of those were portrayed by non-disabled actors.

Given the relative invisibility of disability in film, it’s no wonder that I feel unrepresented. Even the lowest bar – to see disabled people on screen, rather than able-bodied actors masquerading disability – is not being reached. However, the negativity of the representation we do have is even more distressing.

Disabled characters are often confined to incredibly narrow archetypal roles. At best, these are saccharine: ‘inspirational’ disabled children such as Tiny Tim, or more recently Auggie, a boy with craniofacial abnormalities played by an able-bodied child actor in the 2017 film adaptation of Wonder. While it can feel a little wearing to see these kinds of stories played out repeatedly, they’re not necessarily harmful; indeed, Wonder resonated with me as a young child, and I appreciated the centralising of disability in the film adaptation, despite some problematic elements.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other childhood classics. In these, one of the most familiar – and damaging – tropes regarding disability, the ‘magical cure’, is incredibly prevalent. Originating from moralistic Victorian narratives such as fairy tales and children’s novels, the popularity of this story arc has endured on screen through film adaptations. The ‘magical cure’ is exactly what it sounds like: a disabled character is ‘healed’ at the end of their story, often a ‘reward’ for goodness. Whilst this narrative might not seem overly damaging, its implications are pernicious. These stories perpetuate a false idea that disability can be overcome through sheer force of will. In a practical sense, this need for a character to become passably able-bodied prevents disabled actors from taking on the role.

"Our films are revealing a difficult truth: our society does not value disabled lives as much as those of able-bodied people"

More significantly, this trope assumes that disability is negative, that disabled characters need or want to be cured. There is a gulf of perception between this able-bodied fantasy, and the lived reality of myself and others. I have always known that I would never want a cure for my disability, and the vast majority of my disabled friends feel the same way. But even in 2020, film is not reflecting this reality. I sincerely hope that the upcoming adaptation of The Secret Garden might tackle this element of the plot in a more modern light, but, despite other updates to the source material – including a new wartime setting, and the forward-step of colour-blind casting – the film appears to be maintaining the novel’s Edwardian approach to disability. ‘This garden needs to cure Colin’, states one voice-over on the latest trailer, once again implying a harmful message: that disabled people need to be ‘cured’ and cannot be allowed to exist as they are. That disability is an evil to be defeated, not a difference to be embraced.

If the fantasy alone is not worrying enough, the real-life implications are even more so. In 2018, the Russian film ‘Temporary Difficulties’ showed a father successfully ‘curing’ his son’s disability through abusive means, such as refusing the boy a wheelchair, and abandoning him in the woods alone. The disability in question? Cerebral Palsy, an indisputably permanent muscular issue caused by brain damage. Not only is it troubling to see this story marketed as ‘inspirational’, but the sheer depth of misinformation in the film is incredibly damaging.


Mountain View

Disability and desire

Even more dangerous, however, is the narrative of 2016’s ‘Me Before You’. The film, which sees a quadriplegic man end his life through assisted suicide, was heavily criticised by disability activist groups. The film perpetuates a disproportionately negative view of disability, framing it as a fate worse than death. In any other romance, the suicide of a handsome, wealthy, much-loved male lead would seem nonsensically cruel. But when the character in question happens to be disabled, his death is seen as bittersweet, even romantic.

Our films are revealing a difficult truth: our society does not value disabled lives as much as those of able-bodied people. Whether through a cure or through death, many films are sending a clear message: that disability, and disabled people, should not be allowed to exist. In a time where eugenic ideas are starting to regain traction in mainstream discussion (known eugenicist Peter Singer recently spoke at the Union), this is more dangerous than ever. It is now essential for us to allow disabled creators a real voice, and to rethink our accepted narratives of disability.