Over the past few years we’ve seen an expansion on the conversation surrounding representation in television and movies. While the conversation has mostly been for good, its primary focus seems to be aimed at representation of race, gender, and sexuality. And, on sites like ours, most of the time these are in reference to the future of superhero characters. However, one segment of the population that has faced problems concerning representation are people with disabilities. As part of the Writer’s Guild of America’s Writer’s with Disabilities Committee, writer-director Michael Dougherty, a writer living with spina bifida, along with producer and WDC member Paul Chitlik have created Look Around, a clever short film that hopes to expand the view of writers and their sources of inspiration.
This is a short that is aimed at writers because there are a number of stories that have, so far, remained untold. Dougherty was kind enough to take the time and elaborate on his film as well as issues concerning representation for the disabled.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the Writers with Disabilities Committee and your goal with this particular short?
Michael Dougherty: The WDC, headed by chair Allen Rucker, concerns itself with getting images out there in TV and film that provide an accurate depiction of the disability experience. Accuracy is not often the case. We often ingest that kind of characters in our entertainment who are weak and angry and alone. The committee advocates for richer stories to be told about being a person out in the larger world, one who happens to be dealing with a particular physical or mental issue. Look Around wasn’t made for people with disabilities, because they already know the score. Rather, it was intended for an industry that often buries its head in the sand when it comes to “otherness”. With Look Around we hope to push things toward a sense of normalization and inclusion. We can’t do it alone. The industry needs to open its eyes and ears. Only good can come of this, because the stories we tell only get better the more truth we put into them. Stereotypes of “specialness” have inhibited this community from seeing itself as part of society as depicted on screen. In other words, most of us lead rather ordinary lives and desire the same things as everyone else – love, sex, work, family. Given that something like 20% of Americans have some form of disability, that’s a lot of complex life experience. It should be reflected back at us on our TV and movie screens. This is particularly vital for younger people who don’t have anyone in whom they see themselves. If you can’t relate to your culture, of course you become isolated and the stereotypes continue. I believe with every fiber of my being that the older generation bears an obligation to hold the door open for the ones coming up behind so they can pass through it with greater access to tell even better stories.
Q: What, if any, are some good examples of representation for disabled people in current TV and film? What are some bad examples?
MD: As for examples of what’s good and bad, take The Theory of Everything, which Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for on Sunday. He plays Stephen Hawking, who has ALS [commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease]. That this movie exists is a good thing because it presents an individual who was limited in body, but whose mind changed the world. Some have argued that an “able-bodied” person – a phrase I loathe – should not have played that part. It is an argument that will go on until the actual Stephen Hawking figures out the end of time itself.
I’m more concerned, though, with the script, which never fully engaged with the thorniness of Hawking’s private life and how difficult it was at that time to be a person with a disability just trying to see another day. It sweetens the struggle and never quite dives deep enough to show how two people make a relationship work – or not work – not in spite of disability, but because of it. The story needed to be messier and more uncomfortable, but that kind of thing never winds awards. Its success perpetuates the idea that the disability experience is all about uplift, as if there’s always a violinist in step with the wheelchair. There is a scene in the film in which Hawking imagines himself getting out of the chair and handing a woman a pen she has dropped. That’s not only treacly writing, it suggests that a person with a disability lives with the regret of their circumstances. That’s not acceptance. I’d go out on a limb and suggest no writer with a disability worth her salt would write a scene like that.
Q: Finally, what advice would you have for people with disabilities who aspire to write?
MD: Tell YOUR story. Don’t tell the one you think people want to hear. Be fearless and always check in with your truth and being encouraging to others. Keep digging, as a great teacher once told me, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. You’re enough.
For more information about the Writers with Disabilities Committee, please consult the WGA’s official page here.