Nothing About Us Without Us: An Overview of Disability/ Deaf Representation in Film

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Sandra Alland contemplates the importance of the notion of ‘nothing about us without us’, critiquing and highlighting non-disabled productions alongside an exciting collection of disabled and/or Deaf artists and films. Most films are available free online (follow the links), and all have subtitles or transcripts.

When faced with having to digest food or films of variable quality, I like to start with the unsavoury and move to the tasty. There are predictable and well-documented problems with most non-disabled depictions of disabled people onscreen, so I’ll briefly touch on a few examples so we can get to the more palatable and juicy alternatives.

Recent non-disabled disability programming I’ve caught on BBC iplayer includes Snow Cake (wherein an unwatchable and cringe-worthy Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic woman, or at least I think that’s what she’s trying to do) and BBC’s own The A Word (which is at times vaguely watchable but infuriatingly focused on what a ‘horrible burden’ it is to have autistic children). Both productions are clear examples of how not to examine autism, and how not to cast it. On a related note, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III is even more embarrassing than his portrayal of Stephen Hawking.

Widening my search for disabled representation to the global, I came across Indian film, Margarita With A Straw (2014). This feature fills several intersecting filmic voids with its complex and positive narrative about independent disabled queer Asian women. The film unfortunately showcases a non-disabled actor in the lead role of a woman with cerebral palsy, and a non-blind actor as her blind lover. But director Shonali Bose at least consulted with actual disabled people, including her cousin with CP, instead of asking disabled people’s parents or making it all up. Despite its problems, Margarita’s writing, message and romance are infinitely less ableist and more sexy than in most non-disabled films about disability.

As I was contemplating the issue of non-disabled people controlling disability narratives, Me Before You happened and the issues exploded in a way we haven’t experienced in a while. Following the scandal of the book and film written and directed by non-disabled people, disabled critics made the same arguments about writing and casting we’ve made before with films and plays like Rain Man, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Scent of a Woman, Bennie and June, The Theory of Everything, and many others: namely that their depictions of our lives, even when the acting and writing are ‘good’, lack authenticity. And perhaps also worth mentioning, they are almost all about cis straight white middle-class people.

Still of the poet/ performer Leroy Moore pictured behind the words: Where is Hope

Still from Police Brutality and Disability – Pushed and Punched- Gofundme Promo

I ask you now to shift your concentration away from problematic depictions of disabled or Deaf lives, especially complete atrocities like Million Dollar Baby and Me Before You that send the message we’re better off dead. Leroy Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation and co-director with Emmitt Thrower of a powerful documentary about police brutality against disabled people, Where Is Hope: The Art of Murder (2015), says: “I don’t give a flying f#ck about a Hollywood movie but I do care about my people protesting all over the world!” It’s arguably more valuable to support the intense daily struggles Deaf and disabled people can experience, and to resist ableist narratives by defending and celebrating our own lives onscreen.

As an alternative to the usual narrative, I can happily offer you three Deaf-led films that cover romance in a decidedly un-tragic way. Best known for her passionate stage performances, British Sri Lankan Nadia Nadarajah has also written and directed a short film, All Day (2010). Employing witty BSL dialogue, a talented and diverse all-Deaf cast, and funny fantasy segments of imagined dates with hearing people, Nadarajah creates a delightful comedy about chance, Deaf culture and the nature of attraction.

Charlie Swinbourne’s 2011 script directed by William Mager, Hands Solo, is a hilarious mockumentary following the exploits of a Deaf man who accidentally becomes a famous porn star (and ruins his relationship) because of fast-flying fingers and a mysterious move called ‘The Spider’. The film has some dubious moments regarding consent and gender, but overall it’s engaging and full of fun references to Deaf humour and culture. And like Nadarajah’s All Day, it features an Asian woman in a main role (in this case the talented Deepa Shastri), casting we don’t often get in European or North American hearing films. Both Deaf leads give excellent performances, and Matt Kirby as Hands Solo delivers particularly side-splitting asides to the camera.

photo of two gay men in the front seat of a car smiling at each other

Still from Passengers by Dickie Hearts. Image © Dickie Hearts

For those seeking something less cis-heteronormative, Virginia-born Dickie Hearts is your filmmaker. His debut, Passengers, follows a Deaf QPOC Uber driver (played by Hearts) through a non-glamourous depiction of Hollywood. The quirky short features queer joy, a surprise twist, and divine bow ties. Hearts won Best Filmmaker at the Disability Film Challenge in 2015, a 48-hour filmmaking competition requiring the use of specific genres, props and locations. After watching what he created in two days with an all-volunteer cast and crew, I can’t wait for more.

Continuing in this list of ace Deaf-led films, we move next to Ted Evans’s The End (2011), an eerie and dramatic mockumentary imagining ‘the end of Deaf’. We follow a group of fictional children over 60 years as they decide, with increasing pressure, whether or not to take ‘the cure’. Unfortunately the one Asian character states that his culture is less accepting of difference and disability – a potentially dodgy implication by the white filmmaker that a British Asian is inherently more likely to reject Deaf culture. Despite this blip, the film vividly captures the erasure of language, culture, personality and diversity that happens when we focus on a strange and limited idea of perfection. A sobering and emotionally charged short.

photo of disabled performer kneeling, surrounded by crutches

Still from Claire Cunningham’s Resemblance. Image © Claire Cunninghamleroy

Scotland’s Claire Cunningham has found a gorgeous and provocative way of bringing dance and disability to the screen with her collaborative WWI-inspired short, Resemblance (2014). As always, Cunningham works brilliantly in the world of symbols and shapes, this time assembling a crutch like a gun, and suggesting support in the place of destruction. Often disability as a result of war injury is (logically) painted as tragic and used to demonstrate the wrongness of war – an idea that can complicate a proud disabled identity if not taken in context. The recent funding-based imposition of World War I as a theme for artists is questionable for many reasons, including imperialism and a focus on a specific kind of disability narrative, but Cunningham’s refined choreography and performance succeed in maintaining a complex, open-ended and riveting response.

In 2013, I mentored five Scotland-based filmmakers for the Queer and Trans Deaf and Disabled Film Project, and was impressed by what students created with extremely low budgets, minimal guidance and short time frames. In her documentary, An Exploration of my Schizophrenia, director and editor Sophie Norman documents an attempt to conquer her fear of climbing the Glasgow Necropolis. We’re drawn into the heart of her emotional journey by a skilful weaving together of professional footage, shots from Norman’s own hand-held camera, her paintings, and recorded voice-over. The results of this no-budget first film are more visceral and gripping than most high-budget productions.

There are also plenty of disabled, crip, neurodiverse, ill, mad and/or Deaf filmmakers who do not overtly focus on disabled or Deaf identity in their work – or perhaps do so in less immediately recognisable ways. Particularly compelling are two London-based performance artists who sometimes work with film, Andra Simons and Raju Rage. Bermudian-born Simons is a published poet and seasoned performer, whose work explores aspects of queer sexuality, gender and mental health. In collaborative film-poems like Bishop In Love (uncaptioned, but there’s a transcript below the video), we witness a skilled melding of poetic text with equally poetic visuals, as Simons transforms the onscreen narrative with his words (and vice-versa).

Rage is known for their happenings, installations, and filmic documents of their intense and unique performances. They work with text, textiles, sound collage, and their gender non-conforming body to examine race, class, gender variance, and modes of power. Using ‘interruption, confusion, disturbance’ and other forms of artistic resistance, Rage creates powerful infusions of history, memory and present. From the 2014 film of their intimate performance exploring Sikh history, non-binary gender and colonialism, Project/ed: cut your coat according to your cloth, to their recent femme interventions using poetic lipstick texts in public toilets, they continue to bring us fresh and challenging artistic encounters.

I’ll leave you with another bold examination of gender, Mrs. Sparkle (2010). Learning-disabled filmmaker, Matthew Hellett, tells the wordless story of a mysterious invitation from a seeming stranger. Hellett presents a beautiful metaphor for how we can offer ourselves acceptance and space to develop, and be authors of our own narratives.

If you’re interested in more shorts by Deaf and/or disabled filmmakers, stay tuned to Disability Arts Online for the launch of Viewfinder – where Sandra Alland has co-curated (with Lisa Mattocks and SICK! Festival) a playlist of ten captioned shorts, Unapologetic Self-Portraits.

Note: Both Leroy Moore and Raju Rage can be contacted about ways to access their films; Moore’s Where Is Hope is available for rental/purchase on YouTube (captioned).