Does Hollywood hide special needs?

In advance of Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, the Easter Seals Society is criticizing Hollywood for not showing “characters with disabilities” more often.

In an email today, the group said:

The stories of children and adults living with disabilities simply aren’t being told. In 2010, acclaimed movies like The King’s Speech and Temple Grandin brought interesting characters living with disabilities to enthusiastic audiences – but last year’s major releases showed a distressing lack of portrayals of people with special needs.

The entertainment industry needs to keep hearing from supporters like you that people with disabilities, and the people who care about them, are not invisible. As industry leaders celebrate the year’s finest films at the Oscars this weekend, they’ll also be thinking about new projects for the year ahead – making this the perfect time to speak out and let them know we want to see more diversity onscreen.

Movies and television aren’t just entertainment. They’re a mirror we hold up to society – but right now, they don’t accurately reflect the millions of children and adults living with special needs in the U.S.

Can it be done? Sure. One of the few successful shows NBC has on its schedule — Parenthood — includes a character with autism:

  • Tyler

    Say what you will about Glee – they’ve included a girl with Down syndrome for the past 2 seasons or so. They’ve also addressed teen bullying this year. Unfortunately, the season closer jumped the shark, but overall it’s brave territory for Fox.

  • Bob Collins
  • This is just one of those subjects which is perfect for a press release, since it will get some attention. But it is more smoke than fire.

    Sure, it would be nicer to have more disabled people in movies and TV shows. But instead of pushing for numbers, it’s more important to have disabled characters that aren’t defined by their disability but are instead just good characters.

    Take, for example, Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.” He obviously has Aspergers, but instead of defining him that way producers have just shown him integrated into the fabric of the show. So when he’s stubborn or a bit a jerk, you can laugh at him without thinking “Oh, no, I’m laughing at someone with a disability.”

    And then there’s the approach taken in the new Fox drama “Touch,” which stars a son who may or may not be disabled, but has abilities to see connections in people’s lives that aren’t apparent to the average person. He’s not defined by his disability, but by the things he can or can’t do.

  • Bob Collins

    In the case of Parenthood, in particular, I don’t know how you’d avoid a special needs character without focusing on his special needs, since raising a special needs kid is entirely different parenting.

    It’s true, as you indicate, that the Big Bang character is woven into the fabric of the show, but you also hit it correctly that people would assume he’s a jerk or stubborn or worth laughing at rather than understand whatever illness it is he has.

    Presumably, the other characters on the show know all about this, because they’re incredibly patient with him. The rest of us weren’t let in on the secret.

  • Jim Shapiro

    I, for one, will not be satisfied until Glee has transsexual tone deaf Wikkan Saami conjoined twins riding a jet ski in a major singing role.

  • Jamie

    Very funny, Jim!

    A little off-topic here, but… I wish I could watch “Parenthood.” I tried for a while, and the story liine about the kid with autism was great. But I can’t stand to watch Lauren Graham, who is the same annoying character (herself) in everything I’ve seen her in. Ugh.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Thanks a lot, Jamie. ( Although Bob’s probably thinking “Jeez! Don’t encourage him!” )

    Regarding Asperger’s as an under-represented disability, the most recent episode of This American Life addressed the pathology.

    When given a list of identifying symptoms, a significant majority of married women qualified their husbands as suffering from the social disorder.

    I would say THAT’S very funny.

    ( Granted, a significant majority of married women might not concur.)

  • This is NOT lucy

    The dialog between the teacher and Max is interesting. She really didn’t clarify her demands on class behavior and I applaud Max for correcting her on her lack of instruction.

    Early Childhood Family Education teaches parents to be specific when directing children. They will do exactly as you tell them. Leaving out some of the instruction and expecting them to assume is asking for problems.