It’s said that “One of Five” [i] of the British population suffer from some type of disability, yet flicking through your television, you’d struggle to see this represented. It’s not that there’s a lack of disabled stories being told in screen entertainment. In the past year alone, there’s Stronger (2017) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Breathe (2017) with Andrew Garfield. They tell remarkable real life stories of inspiring disabled people, but what they don’t do, is feature people who actually have a disability. As playwright Christoper Shinn bluntly puts it, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people”. [ii]
In Hollywood, portraying a disabled character is a sign of triumph and skill for able bodied performers. It’s a complex situation; we need more disabled characters on screen, but sometimes the only way these stories can be told is with a big-name, non-disabled actor to draw people in. Change it seems, will instead come from outside the mainstream, and that is what director Len Collin and writer Christian O’Reilly are aiming to do with their feature film Sanctuary (2016). Opting for the relatable over the spectacle, the film tells the fictional tale of the growing relationship between Larry and Sophie, who are played by actors with intellectual disability. While the film could perhaps be seen as a response the law in Ireland that prevented “people with an intellectual disability in Ireland banned from having sex”[iii] (since repealed), it’s not the focus of the narrative. The conversations throughout are mostly mundane, as they discuss love, life and television. Sometimes it veers into darker directions, such as suicide, but empathy never seems to be the emotion the film looks for. Opting for a restrained narrative in comparison to a more expected sermonising tone allows the characters, and in turn the intellectual disabled actors showcase a more, personable and individual side to disability on film.
The biggest success of the film is how it reaches an audience with a story that normalizes disability as part of regular life, and nothing is doing this on as large a scale as a recent commercial campaign for the Mars Chocolate, Maltesers. The advert portrays three women having chat, with one of them happening to have a disability. A joke is made that involves a mention of her cerebral palsy but, rather than being crude or disrespectful, it’s presented in a ‘regular life’ kind of way. Another advert that is part of the campaign has a character in a wheelchair telling the story of how she accidentally runs over the bride’s foot at a wedding. The adverts were hugely successful for the Mars Chocolate, in which the company stated it was the “most successful in decade…..Maltesers achieved an 8.1% uplift compared to the target of 4%” [i]. The success and importance of the campaign cannot be understated when “an average broadcast TV campaign in the UK gets 237 million views”[iv]. It places the focus on the disabled character, but never on the disability, opting instead for a sense of normality, allowing the relatable side to be a focus of the campaign.
The equal representation of disability has yet to reach all aspects of screen media, but there are growing efforts to change this. Chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4 Dan Brooke has spoke up in the past about how “The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people”[v] . He wants to make Channel 4 “the vanguard for change”, pointing to shows like “the Paralympics, The Autistic Gardener and The Undateables”. It’s not just disabled focused shows either, with “C4 News guest hosting disabled announcers”[vi] and a “paralysed man hosting an episode of “Come Dine With Me” [vii] . There is also the comedian Francesca Martinez, who, as she puts its “wobbled out of the disability closet” and used stand up comedy to find a way to “speak honestly about who I was”. Francesca has featured on shows like ‘The Wright Stuff’, ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’ and ‘Loose Women’, not just as a disabled person, but as a comedian who happens to have a disability.
The arts can be powerful tool in awareness, and when “Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people”, and “Over a third (36%) tending to think of disabled people as not productive as everyone else”[viii] , an education is sorely needed. Perhaps there’s no harm in seeing an able bodied actor like Daniel Day-Lewis portray a disabled character, but when he then goes and walks onto the stage to accept an award for that, there is a clear sense of dissonance created. Instead, it would better serve to follow the path of success that maltesers found with their advertising campaign and begin to represent disability as the everyday reality that it is.
[i] Maltesers’ disability campaign “most successful” in decade [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/maltesers-disability-campaign-most-successful-decade/1433980
[ii] Shinn C. Dear Hollywood: Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor [Internet]. The Atlantic. 2014 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/why-disabled-characters-are-never-played-by-disabled-actors/374822/
[iii] Change in law removes illegal status around sexual relationships for people with intellectual disabilities [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/change-in-law-removes-illegal-status-around-sexual-relationships-for-people-with-intellectual-disabilities-789721.html
[iv] £5.28 billion invested in TV advertising in UK in 2016 [Internet]. thinkbox. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from: https://www.thinkbox.tv/News-and-opinion/Newsroom/5-28-billion-pounds-invested-in-TV-advertising-in-2016
[v] The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/creative-industries-lead-inclusivity-disabled-people/1445774
[vi] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/disabled-guest-announcers-take-control-of-channel-4s-continuity-mics
[vii] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/disabled-guest-announcers-take-control-of-channel-4s-continuity-mics(Gilbert )
[viii] Most Brits uncomfortable talking to disabled people | Disability charity Scope UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: https://www.scope.org.uk/About-Us/Media/Press-releases/May-2014/New-research-Majority-of-Brits-uncomfortable-talki