Real Disabilities, Reel Stories
WGAW Writers with Disabilities and HH&S panel reports progress in portrayals of people with disabilities in film and television - but not enough.  

(March 5, 2013) 

Top Row (L-R) Alison Dale, Ben Lewin, Margaret Nagle, Sandra de Castro Buffington, David Radcliff, Eric Guggenheim. Bottom Row (L-R) Allen Rucker, Ann Neville-Jan, Auti Angel  

The Sessions, written and directed by WGAW member Ben Lewin, cast a spotlight on the needs and challenges of a man severely limited by polio – and his success in fully exploring sexuality despite his disability. But the film, which garnered critical praise and a number of awards, is an anomaly in film and television, where there remains a paucity of characters and portrayals of disabilities of many kinds.

In an ongoing attempt to remedy the situation, the WGAW’s Writers with Disabilities Committee teamed up with Hollywood Health & Society last month to sponsor “People First: Real Disabilities, Reel Stories – A Conversation About the Portrayals of People with Disabilites in Film and Television.” Although the conclusion was that characters with disabilities are appearing more frequently – from wheelchair-user Auti Angel in the Sundance Channel’s Push Girls to Max (played by actor Max Burkholder), who has Asperger’s Syndrome on NBC’s Parenthood, to Mark O’Brien, the paralyzed poet in The Sessions – we have a long way to go.

(L-R) David Radcliff, Auti Angel  

While tales of people triumphing over their disabilities are inspiring and the stuff of good drama, the larger goal is a systemic one, to see characters who happen to have disabilities routinely portrayed in the mix of storytelling in film and television. As it now stands, disabilities are the storylines. “They remain clichés and a one-dimensional take on disabilities,” says Alison Dale, Vice-Chair of the WGAW’s Writers with Disabilities Committee and organizer of the panel. “The goal is to see portrayals of characters whose disabilities are not the central focus of the story, but rather an aspect of their whole personas.”

The event gathered an impressive group of panelists, including Lewin; Margaret Nagle, writer/producer, Warm Springs and Boardwalk Empire; Auti Angel, actress; Eric Guggenheim, writer/co-producer, Parenthood; David Radcliff, writer/producer; Ann Neville-Jan (keynote) associate professor, occupational science & therapy, University of Southern California; Sandra de Castro Buffington (moderator), director, Hollywood, Health & Society/USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.

Watch the panel video 

Find out more about the Writers with Disabilites Committee