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Monday, May 10, 2021

Hollywood steps towards greater representation of people with disabilities in cinema

This year, the Academy Award nominations included several works centering on people with disabilities in a decisive step towards strengthening the representation of this group in Hollywood, but experts in the film sector stress the need for greater efforts in this field.

“They’ve never done a good job before, but they know that and we’re here to tell them,” says Paul Russey, Oscar nominee for a best supporting role in “Sound of Metal,” which deals with the story of a drummer who loses his hearing.

An actor, born to deaf parents and suffering from hearing disorders, is “one of the people who have to be in the forefront to prevent a waning momentum.”

“We have to remind them of all the deaf and disabled artists that we have, and all the geniuses who are here,” he explains to AFP.

The caution appears especially justified, as it is not the first time that the film sector has tried to make progress on the subject before returning to its old habits.

In 1948 Jane Weiman, an actress without a hearing impairment won an Oscar for her role as a deaf woman in “Johnny Belinda”.

But Rasi believes that assigning this role to her and not to someone who truly suffers from hearing disabilities was an unsuccessful option.

Little prizes
Hollywood also made great progress in 1987 with the awarding of the Oscar for Best Actress to Marley Matlin, a deaf woman, for her role in “Children of a Lesser God”.

However, awards rewarding artists with disabilities are still very few compared to the progress recorded in the representation of ethnic minorities on the big screen.

“The disabled are often ranked last among these marginalized groups,” says Doug Rowland, director of this year’s Oscar-nominated short film “Feeling Throw”.

The director, who does not suffer from physical disabilities, explains that his film was inspired by his meeting with a deaf and blind man who needed help navigating a road in New York.

An inferior look
In “Feeling Throw,” Doug Rowland recruited actor Robert Tarango who became the first deaf and blind person to play a major role in a movie.

Thanks to this short film that won Marley Matlin’s support as an executive producer, the director wants to communicate the voice of people with disabilities.

But this struggle without it has huge hurdles in the entertainment sector where stereotypes remain “deeply rooted” without people often being aware of it, according to Doug Rowland. “People with disabilities are often viewed with an inferior gaze, even as if they are not even imperfect,” he says.

Open letter
Due to the lack of adequate equipment, access to the filming locations is an impossible task for some artists with physical or visual impairments.

Hollywood stars, including Amy Poehler and Naomi Harris, have sent an open letter to film production companies urging them to urgently seek the help of specialists in dealing with people with disabilities to remove these obstacles.

To try to change things, in 2013 actor Nick Novicki launched a film award requiring that at least one member of the artistic team or cast be persons with disabilities. “When I first started out, we were really suffering a lot more misrepresentation than it is now,” says Novicki.

The stunted actor was tired of filmmakers assigning him roles exclusively related to his short stature.

Crepe camp
Also nominated for the Oscars this year is the documentary “Crip Camp,” produced by a company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.

The film deals with the establishment of a vacation camp for disabled youth in the 1970s, and the critical role that this played in defending the rights of people with disabilities in the United States.

“This is one of the most beautiful films I know and the one that rejects exclusion,” Novicki confirms, praising the work of assistant director James Lubrecht, who is a disabled person.

He says that the number of people with disabilities is estimated in the hundreds of millions around the world, which makes them the “largest minority”, calling for members of this group to be given their rightful place in films.

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