Images of Disability

'I am not an animal, I am a human being. '

 John Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man

This lecture is split into two parts; the first deals with general representation theories of disability and the second with more specific issues of the stereotypical representation of disability.  I refer to the same writers in both sections due to the scarcity of available literature on disability and impairment imagery. 


The Representation of Disability (which is actually of impairment)!


There is more literature on images of disability in literature, both popular and that which is in the literary canon than on film, with Dickens (in general) and Edith Wharton (especially Ethan Frome) singled out for repeated criticism.  It is interesting to note how film adaptations of Dickens' work are largely ignored in the literature on disability imagery in films that exists; perhaps Dickens' negativity speaks for itself.  I shall only be discussing those critics who deal with cinematic representations of disability; though these writers often combine the two (justifiably) in order to show the cultural depth and influences that combine to create a 'naturally tragic crip'.  Most critics, especially American ones, use the term 'disability' when they actually mean impairment and not disability - the social construction of impairment as Other - as that is rarely intentionally represented.


Much of what I am about to review is short, intentionally superficial, and indexical.  The reason for this is that impairment is seen, almost exclusively, to be as true in reality as its metaphorical meaning in literature and cinema: tragic, sad and unbearable.  Many writers of fiction, and literary or cultural academia, who address disability often use it as the key to unlock the psyches of normal people; thereby reifying disability as a quantifiable, justifiable, objective, horror to be feared.  Leslie Fiedler's book Freaks (1978) is a good example of such a tendency.  Bogdan (1988) states of Fiedler's work that his mythological and psychoanalytical approach posits that:

human beings have a deep, psychic fear of people with specific abnormalities.  Dwarfs, for example, confront us with our phobia that we will never grow up.  Yet although Fiedler's study of 'human curiosities' shifts the focus from 'them' to 'us', it also reifies 'freak' by taking 'it' as a constant and inevitable outpouring of basic human nature.  (p.7)  

In other words, Fiedler accepts the Medical Model of disability; for him the normal are justifiably afraid of the abnormal (and will always be so), because it exists naturally to mystify human comprehension, and that disability, abnormality and impairment are a natural state that is pathologically abhorrent.  Fiedler seems to be completely unaware that abnormality is a constructed state that various people inhabit (voluntarily in many cases of 'freaks').  Bogdan shows the process of social construction of the freak in the freak show when he tells the story (in Freak Show, 1988) of a showman who meets a tall man and tells him he thinks that the man is tall and then makes him an offer he cannot refuse: How would you like to be a giant?  Such a simple tale shows the extent to which being a giant is less abnormality than it is showmanship and publicity: i.e. a construction.  Although neither has much to say on disability as seen in the modern world of cinema Bogdan's book is a useful tool in understanding that the Elephant Man was as much a creation in the freak show as he is in David Lynch's film The Elephant Man.  Although Fiedler mentions the cinema (i.e. the 'dwarf' in Day of the Locust) it is only to reinforce the idea of abnormality as a natural worry to a normal psyche; a view that continues to mystify abnormality as pathologically deviant and threatening.


Gartner and Joe, in Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (1987), compile a collection of essays that come much closer to questioning the construction of disability in life and culture than any other book that questions images of disability written prior to Barnes or Norden's studies of disability imagery (dealt with in detail in the following chapter on stereotypes of impairment as disability).  Alas, only one chapter of the twelve deals with cinema specifically, but it is placed within a context of the construction of disability in many discourses, discourses that interact to make disability appear to be 'common sense'; and by common sense they mean the Medical Model of disability that places it as deviant, pathological and suffered by the individual concerned, with society's only responsibility being to care for, or cure, it.  Gartner and Joe demonstrate that disability is as constructed in legislation as it is in literature and classroom technology.  The chapter on impairment and cinema is Paul Longmore's 'Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People'.


Longmore looks at all forms of impairment on film and television: impairments of speech, vision, intellect and physique.  Longmore's (p.65) first significant point is that there 'are hundreds of characters with all sorts of disabilities' represented. They range from 'monsters' and 'crippled criminals' to cartoon characters like Elmer Fudd and Mr Magoo.  The reason we forget that images of the disabled are everywhere, for Longmore, is that entertainment is an escape and, as such, the bits that do not help us escape we erase from our memory.  Longmore more accurately states that such representations:

tell us that the problem is not as painful or as overwhelming as we fear, that it is manageable, or that it is not really our problem at all, but someone else's. (p.66)

Longmore is beginning to capture an element of impairment representations when he argues that they are a functionalist exercise in social interaction (they enable people to interact with one another more effectively).  Alas, Longmore fails to continue in this light and instead gives us examples, which he considers negative because they make disability pathological and the determining characteristic of the character as a natural characteristic of disablement (i.e. obsessional behaviour in characters such as Ahab, Richard III and both the Doctors No and Strangelove).  Longmore gives us the first labelled stereotype of a disabled character: disability as a consequence of his/her own evil, which, in turn, makes him/her bitter and vengeful.  Although I do not disagree with this, one cannot help but suggest that there could be an element of truth within such a representation.  The issue is to get behind the reasons for such a representation as axiomatic without dismissing the potential validity of such a representation (or behaviour) if it is from the point of view of a character who has an impairment.  Though, as Longmore states, such villainous and embittered characters do re-validate the generally accepted idea that disability and impairment are inherently linked to evil and that such behaviour is a pathological characteristic of having an impairment.


Longmore is expert at demonstrating, with a list of examples, how impairment is shown as being less than human and as having a hatred of all that is human (Longmore relates this to Goffman's (1990) assertion that such a labelling is part of stigmatisation).  Longmore (following on from Fiedler) sees disability portrayals as a threat to normal psychology; he states that:

[W]hatever the specific nature of disability, it unleashes violent propensities that normally would be kept in check by internal mechanisms of self-control.  (p.68)

Although he continues to explain that the result of this for the disabled individual is social isolation, he fails to accept that this may be a ' realistic' scenario in some situations and is, as such, valid.  By the rejection of a certain kind of behaviour he himself negativises that behaviour by disabled people themselves, validating its expulsion from society by advocating its expulsion from the cinema screen.  In examining why disabled characters are often dead by the end of the movie, giving The Elephant Man as an example, Longmore states that this implies that it is 'better to be dead than disabled' (p.70).  Again, I do not dispute such an interpretation in theory but when combined with Longmore's assertion (p.70) that a film is negative because it states that 'disability [impairment] means a total physical dependency that deprives the individual of autonomy and self-determination', he is not accepting that this can be the lived reality of some disabled people and, as such, it is valid.


Longmore isolates two other stereotypes of disability portrayal: individuals adjusting to their disability (or to be more specific, their impairment) and the asexual or hyper-sexual disabled character.  Within the stereotype of the disabled individual 'adjusting' Longmore sees the 'bitter' individual coming to terms with the impairment (and disablement by extension), but only after the normal lead has shown them the way (i.e. The Men, 195  - Marlon Brando in a wheelchair for his first film - being cited as a good example) and then being compensated with some extra talent or special gift (for example, the visually impaired always having exceptional hearing).  These are common themes indeed, Longmore's example of the blind being better able to see into the heart of man is a wonderfully vague example that could be applied to so many 'blind' films; the visually impaired also being innately musical is another good example of the crassness of many images of visual impairment (Darke, 1997).  Each stereotype Longmore lists could, and often does, overlap; the 'brave' or 'tragic' impaired individual is often shown within their criminal, monster or adjusting (and occasionally sexual) stereotype.  For example, the 'Elephant Man', Merrick, is made more brave and then tragic by his adjustment to his deformity.  Longmore is right to assert, at length, that:

these stories put the responsibility for any problems squarely and almost exclusively on the disabled individual.  If they are socially isolated, it is not because the disability inevitably has cut them off from the community or because society has rejected them. Refusing to accept themselves with their handicaps, they have chosen isolation.  (p.71)

The above quote ascribes to cinema an ideology of impairment firmly placed within a Medical Model of disability, but is this any wonder when the Medical Model of disability has an almost complete hegemonic dominance within most Western cultures; a dominance supported by almost all other forms of cultural and social discourse; be it in social policy or legislation.  It is both naive and pointless to expect anything different and it is unfair to be overtly critical of those individuals with an impairment who choose isolation; after all isolation is better, for many, than humiliation, the usual result of any attempt by the abnormal to try and enter normality.


The sexual aspects of impairment are, for Longmore, often portrayed contradictorily:  some characters will be impotent at the slightest hint of disability whilst others will have an insatiable need for sexual satisfaction (depending upon which other stereotype of impairment is overlapping).  Longmore relates sexual impotence to the desire of the audience to see disability as not worth living and my later chapter on disability and the family shows in detail how this is achieved.  Longmore cites both the play, and film, of Whose Life Is It Anyway? as, for him, the best example of the stereotype of the disabled person as sexually inadequate.  For Longmore it is a wholly negative portrayal of a disabled person with sexual dysfunction as it portrays the individual as 'only half a man' (p.73). Whilst not deviating from the principal point of Longmore's argument I would add that the situation be placed in its context of a social discourse (cinema itself for example) of what constitutes masculinity and therefore a man.  In such a context the character is right to assume that he is only half a man in his own culture, as he is seen by others both culturally and in reality as sexually suspect.  The film's limitations are revealed in its support of such a supposition rather than if it had been either critical of such an attitude or, at least, aware of its social construction.  For me, a strand of argument that Longmore (and others) fail to take up, the discourse of what man is, is the very discourse that is used to marginalise the impaired and instigate (what Gilman (1988) calls 'self-hate') their self doubt.  Such representations are not 'bad' or negative in themselves, rather there is nothing essentially 'wrong' (socially or culturally) in being impotent or dependent physically.


The error of positive disability writers and their discourse - a contradiction in terms as they mean positive impairment imagery - is to argue that these negative portrayals should not be presented (a view Longmore leans towards).  I would argue that such an act, or philosophy, only serves to marginalise those who are impotent (or the like) still further, in the hope that those who are not impotent (or physically dependent for example) are treated more fairly; a philosophical position that reinforces the idea of normality and impairment as disability.  Longmore seems to want it both ways; he is critical of films that represent the disabled as sexually dysfunctional and of those that represent others with severe disability as having no trouble attracting the opposite sex (here he cites the double amputee in the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives). Prior to these examples he states that 'even when a disability does not limit sexual functioning, it may impair the person emotionally' (p.73). Although this is a statement of the negative way films give the sexually functional disabled emotional problems, the sentence is stranded in isolation to validate such a statement as a generalised statement of 'truth' in itself; the opposite of what Longmore is actually trying to say but which may in many instances be the lived reality.  Longmore is very close to Fiedler's tendency to concentrate on how they, the normal audience, see us, the disabled, whilst having a view of us that, although based on a Social Model of disability, excludes the social reality of having an impairment and classifies having an impairment as being a victim, something he himself is trying to condemn.  When Longmore continues that the amputee in The Best Years of Our Lives is  accepted by his wife with no problems he is forcing himself into a corner; so much so that disability with and without standard sexual functioning, does impair the person emotionally but that anything that shows this is inherently negative to all disabled people.  Longmore continues:

[T]hese depictions fly in the face of the real-life experiences of many handicapped men and women who find that even the most minor impairments result in romantic rejection. (p.73)

Longmore is concentrating on the representation as negative at the expense of social discourse; he is failing to acknowledge that disability often does lead to an emotional impairment along the way.  This though is not due to impairment itself but the social construction or view of it and its alternatives i.e. normality.  Longmore continues that:

these features also reiterate, with the active complicity of the disabled participants themselves, the view that disability is a problem of individual emotional coping and physical overcoming, rather than an issue of social discrimination against a stigmatised minority.  (p.75)

Longmore is correct to sum up filmic representations of disability in the above manner, but what is unfortunate is the criticism of the disabled actors for performing in a way which is required by filmmakers (i.e. their employment conditions).  To some extent, to show disability in any other way would be to devalue disability as it is lived by the vast majority of disabled in this or most other societies.  Disability is about individual coping and overcoming in this society; it is a mistake to try and base any 'cultural' argument solely within the Social Model as it negates its own validity by dismissing the existence and hegemony of a medical condition or disability in which an impairment is lived.  It falls into the same trap that the Medical Model encases: insular dogmatism that is so abstract that it loses its grip on the lived experience of those with an impairment.  I agree that social discrimination and exclusion is the flowering of disability construction but its impact is rooted within the individual coping and physically overcoming those socially constructed barriers of disablement as defined in the Social Model of disablement.  The individual's experience of impairment in a disabling world, at least, explains why so many disabled people 'enjoy' negative images of their group.  Longmore seems to have the underlying philosophy that the impaired are normal really; an interpretation that is reinforced by his closing section on what a 'good' or positive representation of impairment is.


For Longmore the most important representational 'breakthrough' came in commercials (for Levi Jeans, Macdonalds and Kodak) in the United States. In these, for Longmore, disabled people:

are not portrayed as helpless and dependent, but rather as attractive, active, and with it, involved and competitive, experiencing 'normal' relationships [ ... ] and  smart about what they buy [ ... ] these commercials offer perhaps the most positive media images of people with disabilities to date. (p.78)

It is difficult to see how such representations can be classified as positive, even by Longmore, as they are even less concerned with 'social discrimination' than the films Longmore is critical of.  For Longmore the 'breakthrough' is in having disabled people as normal consumers; a fact which flies even further in the face of reality as disabled people are usually among the poorest (Berthoud et al, 1993), increasingly so if both black and disabled (Stuart, 1993).  But, most importantly, in my view, such positive images increase the marginalisation of those who have impairments that are not capable of being normalised: unattractive impairments; the severely speech impaired; and the severely disabled who are physically dependent and cannot push themselves around in their wheelchairs playing basketball in Nike trainers (even if they could afford them).  To consider such normal representations as positive pushes further back the opportunities for equality than do negative portrayals such as The Best Years of Our Lives or The Elephant Man; at least those films show 'ugly' disabilities being confronted by an able-bodied and image obsessed society.  Such representations leave a lot to be desired but at least they do not make attractive something which is socially constructed as unattractive.  It is interesting to note that Longmore sees disabled people as positive in the commercials because they are being physically competitive; one of the most pertinent areas around which the inability to be physically superior, or inferior, is defined: sport.  Whilst Longmore sees positivity in, for me, the most negative area, I would argue that such representations only serve to re-invigorate the supremacy of physical perfection, a supremacy that must be laid to rest, as a question of moral superiority, if the disabled are to be seen as equal.


Longmore's essay is excellent at showing how impairment has been used to show contradictory impressions of disability, impressions that are not particularly positive as they are based within, and upon, the Medical Model of disability.  Longmore's error is that he tends to value normality too much, to the extent that he only sees positivity in those representations which show the impaired as normal-like people.  As the old disability protest badge said: '[T]he problem with normal people is that they don't exist'.


Jenny Morris, in her book Pride Against Prejudice (1992), is another disabled writer who writes from a Social Model of disability perspective and she also has one chapter on disability imagery with, significantly, her main reference point being Longmore's chapter in Gartner and Joe's book Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (1987).  She makes the point that there are very few representations of women with disabilities; though in her case she means wheelchair users like herself as there are a number of women with hearing or visual impairments in various films; many parts - Johnny Belinda and Magnificent Obsession to name but two - made her own by Jane Wyman.


Of disability representations in general Morris states that:

[T]he crucial thing about [ ... ] cultural representations of disability is that they say nothing about the lives of disabled people but everything about the attitudes of non-disabled people towards the disability.  (p.93)

Although I agree that such representations say an enormous amount about how society views disability it is a little reductionist to blame individual non-disabled people for their attitudes; they are as equally constructed as disability is and, as such, are prevented from thinking 'correctly' about disability by a dominant social (society) discourse rooted in the Medical Model.  Also, it is not the case that such portrayals of impairment say nothing about the 'real' lives of the disabled; if nothing else, the most negative portrayal possible (any of The Hunchback of Notre Dame films for example) validates the impaired individual's own feelings of insecurity (confirming, if nothing else, that it is not paranoia) in a society that discriminates against people with impairments in its structures and relationships.  Cultural representations do tell us a lot about disability as it is lived; they must do in order to posit themselves in any form of realism (as most cultural representations of disability do).  Even if they only show a Medical Model view of disability, it is the model that dominates disabled people's lives and, as such, it reflects it to the impaired who live under it.


Morris concentrates, to start with, on My Left Foot; complaining that it never appreciates Christy Brown's art or fiction but merely wonders at his 'overcoming all odds' (p.95) but, to be just, it is unfair to expect a bio-pic genre film to do something different as most bio-pics concentrate on personal tragedy and triumph (Custen, 1992).  Equally, Morris is selective in her viewing of the film as quite a few of his paintings are shown; though the film is an 'overcoming all odds' film about impairment that does negativise by its sentimentalisation of Brown's achievements (which are indeed considerable considering the time and the place of them).  Morris's next point about My Left Foot reveals her tendency to see positive impairment portrayal as when it is shown as normal-like (see Longmore's comments above); a dubious contradiction in a book sub-titled Celebrate The Difference.  She writes:

[A]t a formal dinner in a restaurant, Christy abuses the woman who has just told him that she loves someone else, shouting and pulling the tablecloth off the table.  In other words, he behaves in an oppressive, aggressive and intimidating manner, not an unusual thing for a non-disabled man to do but film critics seemed to think it was amazing for a disabled man to behave in this way. Somehow, it is supposed to be 'progressive' that a disabled man was portrayed as behaving in a thoroughly obnoxious way.  The makers of this film are not actually portraying the lives of disabled individuals; rather the disability is a vehicle for exploring the pain of dependency and vulnerability for men. (p.95)

What Morris is really saying is that obnoxious disabled people should not be shown as they give a bad impression of disabled people.  If only obnoxious people were shown such an assumption could be true but, as they are rarely shown in that manner, it cannot be claimed that it generalises disabled people as obnoxious; to some extent it should be seen as positive even by Morris as it is a normalising of impairment.  As Morris states, it is typical male behaviour.  If we combine the above comments with Morris's earlier comments that the films in question show nothing of the lives of disabled people, we can see that she is setting her own agenda for how disabled people should be portrayed and how they should behave; an agenda even more guilty of generalisation than that of the film-makers'.  Personally, the only piece of My Left Foot that I felt really captured my experience of disability was the 'obnoxious' scene; a scene that I had 'lived' in my late adolescence.  For Morris to describe the scene as the woman telling Brown that she loves someone else is also a slight misreading of the film; Morris implies that there was something between the two characters to start with when there was not; it could be argued that what the scene does show is the emotional immaturity that many disabled people experience when they are isolated and prevented from participating in usual adolescent emotional experience.  Consequently, I would argue that My Left Foot does show, in this incident, a great deal about disability as it is lived.  The point is that it is lived through isolation and ignorance.  What is wrong, and films such as My Left Foot fail to clarify this point, is that such ignorance and isolation is a social construct and that such images legitimate many a disabling barrier.


Morris sees Coming Home as a positive representation of disability because, fundamentally, the main impaired character (Jon Voight) is not impotent (a misreading as he is impotent; and that that is the positive point of the film).  Again we have the idea of positive images being those that are as close to being as normal as possible.  Morris's major criticism of My Left Foot (and Born on the Fourth of July) is that it:

depends on the stereotype that to be in a wheelchair is to be impotent, unable to be a complete (hetero)sexual being, and therefore not a complete man.  (p.96)

The question of impotence as a stereotypical characteristic of disability (lower limb paralysis especially) is an interesting one, but again, Morris has misread My Left Foot as, despite other dubious characteristics, Christy Brown is not characterised as impotent.  Born On The Fourth of July also examines the shock to an individual - grounded in machismo militarism - who becomes impotent - the cultural antithesis of all that he was.  As such, it did confront a real experience lived by many men who become, or became, disabled in such a manner.  I agree that impotence is generalised for the wheelchair user, but there is a terrible tendency to assert potency at the expense of those who are impotent due to their medical/physical condition.  By stressing that all images of impotence are bad and 'stereotypical' one is merely relegating those that are further into the abyss of ignorance and stereotyping (or archetyping).  What Morris is advocating is that disabled people only be represented as normal human beings; and by normal she means that they fulfil standard criteria as laid down in constructed social processes for independence and employability.  Such a philosophy will result in selective, and attractive, impairments being included in both cinema and society.  Morris' philosophy (indicated in her admiration of the advertisements equally admired by Longmore as 'a joy to watch' (p.113)) does more harm than My Left Foot ever will.


Morris is best at describing the way in which various movies, which emphasise disability as an individual problem, fail to offer the viewer all the alternatives that could give the disabled character a better understanding of his situation.  'His' situation being a key thread of Morris's criticism.  Disabled women are almost excluded as cinematic characters except as deaf or blind people.  Morris fails to give a sound reason for this except to blame male domination of the movie industry and its own concern with its fear of impotency and dependency; a view I would consider a little simplistic as it ignores the reality that (financially and often educationally at least) women are constructed in discourse as 'disabled' anyhow by being women.  As Aristotle wrote: 'the female is as it were a deformed male' (cited in Davis, 1995, p.126).  Morris points out that alternatives are not given to explain how various impairments and subsequent disabilities can be overcome and/or made less stressful with the use of aids and finance (etc.).  Even the offering of such an alternative perspective is, to some extent, another assertion of normality by advancing the idea that disability can only be made bearable if impaired people are made to live as normal a life as possible. 


Morris's book is overly concerned with how disabled women get a raw deal in the politics of disability - something that is not quite true and furthermore belittles those women who have led the movement (cf. Barnes, 1996) - and Morris is often contradictory in her treatment of similar situations because it is a male and not a female in the situation.  If we look at her view of Duet For One we can see what I mean.  She writes:

[T]he (film) is very powerful, not least because it reflects not just the loss which is sometimes an integral part of having a condition such as multiple sclerosis, but also how the nature of that loss is determined by what went before rather than the condition itself. (p.105)

It is difficult to see how Born on the Fourth of July and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (and, in a different way, My Left Foot) fail to do exactly the same.  The whole thrust of those movies, and their concern with sexual functioning, is that it is so different to have been normal and then become abnormal, especially if you haven't 'changed' as a person.  Thus, I would agree that to examine the past can be a pertinent, and valid, exercise in looking at acquired impairment, but just as much for a male as female.  Morris misses in Duet For One the conclusion that her moral past is the reason for her present condition; an even more suspect use of patriarchy, but when a male character uses his past to justify his present psychological state, in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Morris condemns it:

'[I]t is surprising', he remarks of her behaviour when in his room, 'how relaxed a woman can become when she is not in the presence of a man'.  To Ken (a newly disabled quadriplegic), paralysis has robbed him of what his masculinity meant to him, and he is thereby robbed of what he defines as his humanity.  (p.106)

It is justifiable to say that Ken is mistaken, impairment has not robbed him of his masculinity (if you re-define masculinity as not being solely residing in heterosexual penile power), except in his own eyes and those of society.  The film leaves us in no doubt that his past was strongly rooted in the power of his penis (both literally and symbolically), a power he no longer has; and significantly, the statements that he makes do, for many similarly impaired males (whether impotent or not), have a strong element of truth.  The film's failure is that it doesn't question what masculinity is but only reinforces one view of it by stating that loss of penis power is as good as death; the film's failure is in not saying that Ken is seen differently by women (et al) because he is now impotent (a realistic portrayal).  That disability (rather than impairment) robs the individual of his/her sexuality in this society is a fair statement.  What is unfair is that this does occur  It is not the impairment that is significant but the social construction of impotency as emasculation.  Morris' philosophy, the idea of a positive representation being that which shows disabled people as normal, robs the individual of the right to see that in this society it isn't, and is not experienced - or constructed - as positive to have an impairment.  To take it a step further, I would argue that the least positive disabled images are those that show disability as 'a secondary characteristic' (p.112) - those that Morris thinks of as positive - because disability, above all else, is not a secondary characteristic for many who are impaired and thus disabled. The positive images, so admired by Morris and Longmore, marginalise those with severe disabilities even further because they are unable to imitate any semblance of normality or benefit from the attempt.


Morris, like Longmore, is good at listing the types of disabled people that exist in cinematic representation in a simplistic form.  When Morris states that:

the most common representation of disability in television and on the cinema screen is a wheelchair user because the wheelchair offers the most obvious and easiest way of presenting a recognisable disability. (p. 98)

Morris is right, statistically speaking (cf. Cumberbatch and Negrine, 199 ), and as such it can be said that the common conception is related to it: to be impaired is to be in a wheelchair.  Wheelchairs are the most common images of disability in cinema and this is not wholly surprising considering that it is an image-based medium that requires speed of recognition in order to establish rapid identification.  It could also be said that it is the most noticed, irrespective of numbers, because that is what 'disability' is in the eyes of the viewer and culture at large.  Personally, I notice more wheelchairs because I use one (as does Morris) and, as in society at large, epileptics have always been a little harder to spot as they are members of that massive army of people with invisible impairments.


Another of Morris's main source books is Lauri E. Klobas' Disability Drama in Television and Film (1988).  The problem with Klobas' text is that she has undertaken the massive task of indexing all references to disability on television (in particular) and on film in the history of film and television but, although it is extensive, it does have some major omissions as it is an American writen and orientated text.  It is split into sections (i.e. one on 'blindness', another on 'small-stature' et al), and gives brief production details, synopsis and a comment on whether it is a positive or negative portrayal of disability. 


Klobas' text is an excellent introduction that is, above all else, indexical.  Its introduction and conclusion, though very brief, list all the formulae and stereotypes that appear to her to be symptomatic of disability representation.  They do not vary significantly from those of Longmore and Morris, but are, none the less, important as a guideline of what to expect when viewing an impaired character on the screen.  Klobas states that:

[A]ny critic worth her/his salt will argue that for the most part, film and television stories are repetitive regardless of subject matter.  That may be true, but those pieces play to an audience that can evaluate what is being seen from personal experience.  On the other hand, the general audience is uninformed about persons with disabilities and has little cautionary discretion for guidance.  People with disabilities are broadly defined onscreen as falling within one or two character types: They are defeated, angry people who require help, or they are 'never-say-die' types who accept disability as a 'physical challenge' and go out to conquer the world.    (p.1)

I agree, to some extent, with Klobas' two types of stereotype (as my later chapter on the validity of calling all images of disability stereotypical demonstrates), but the same could be said of blacks, gays, women and even men.  It is an analysis that is useful to start with but needs developing if one is to get further in to the specificities, causes and attributes, of representations of impairment and disability.  Klobas does not really extend her analysis in any greater depth, instead she simply indexes all she can identify.  I would argue that a key reason for the survival of simplistic stereotypes is that the audience is informed (not uninformed as Klobas states) by personal experience, as personal experience is as socially determined, or mediated, as film is; equally, disabled people have to live their lives, and base their everyday philosophies, upon the medicalised models that influence cinematic representation.  When Klobas rhetorically asks: '[D]oes it ever end?' (p.437), the answer is, without a doubt, no.  No, because the disabled inhabit a 'state' that is placed upon them.  Taken to its full extent, if a character or individual in life does not fit one of the two stereotypes Klobas states, he/she is not 'disabled'.


Klobas sees positive representation of impairment (though she also calls it disability), just as Morris and Longmore do, in the advertisements that show disabled people 'as part of life' (p.438); stating that: '[F]or once, episodic television and movies should take a cue from the commercials'.  Combined with her comment that the love scene in Coming Home is 'a beautiful and honest love scene' and that it was 'the first decent and honest piece to come along since The Men, twenty eight years before' (p.136); it is not difficult to see that, for Klobas, positive representation is that which shows disabled people as normal, sexually satisfying and appealing characters.  Sadly, as I have already pointed out, this bears little relationship to disability as lived by most people and it relegates those unable to fulfil that role (either physically or due to social constraint) even further down the scale of acceptability. 


We can already see that the disabled movement is setting an agenda of what is an acceptable 'good cripple' and an unacceptable 'bad cripple'.  There is however, a misreading of the central character's ability in Coming Home to be sexually penetrative.  This is more positive because it shows disability and impotency to be mutually conducive in offering sexual fulfilment and gratification.  Interestingly, the only film I have seen to date that actively shows oral sex as a satisfactory alternative to penetrative sexual activity - apart from Coming Home - is a horror movie directed by George Romero, made in 1988, called Monkey Shines; which, though suspect in other ways, did not lose its sense of humour.


Cumberbatch and Negrine's study for the Broadcasting Research Unit, Images of Disability on Television  (1992), is perhaps the best look at disability imagery that I have so far found,  This is mainly because it places disability within a context of social meaning and that images are, by their nature, limited in a formula industry.  Although it is a study of television, most of the representations discussed are in films that have been shown on television.  Relating back to Longmore's point that there are hundreds of portrayals of disability on film, Cumberbatch and Negrine state that:

[T]he type of programme most likely to include people with disabilities (in a study of six weeks television) was feature films, of which 41 per cent portrayed characters with disabilities.  (p.51)

However, factual programmes came a very close second with repeated portrayals of impairment in a charity or medical context where they were either 'plucky' or 'brave'.  As disability is so often portrayed 'factually' as medicalised or dependent, it can be no surprise that fiction makes its portrayals in a similar vein.  The success of Cumberbatch and Negrine's book is in its statistical appraisal of impairment characteristics, though it does fails to connect statistical data to the social constructionist nature of disability.


The false public perception of impairment is that it affects and afflicts the young and Cumberbatch and Negrine use the population census to calculate the numbers one would expect to be disabled for various age groups and compares them to their 'Television Population' statistics; this makes quite astounding reading.  The number of people who are disabled in the 'real' world, under the age of fifty, is 16.5%, whilst the number in 'television's world' is over sixty per cent.  Thus, in the television world, which includes a high proportion of cinema films, not only are younger people much more likely to be disabled in some way but that having an impairment is almost compulsory.    Cumberbatch and Negrine statistically prove that severe disability is the most often shown, and that it is over-represented in comparison to the real population. They state:

[L]ocomotor, behaviour and disfigurement problems are relatively overrepresented in the television population, whereas communication and continence problems are relatively underrepresented.  We may explain the prevalence (of one above the other because) they are easiest to represent, they are immediately apparent [ ... ] in a single camera shot.  Incontinence may be underrepresented because of lavatorial taboos. (p.25)

Cumberbatch and Negrine are beginning to see that two factors are vital in an understanding of representations of disability in film and on television: firstly, simplicity (and therefore the severity) of image is vital; and secondly, that the social process is just as important in determining what image is shown.  They continue:

[A] further set of reasons for the choice of disabilities featured on television can be suggested by reference to the ubiquity of the wheelchair as an index of disability, and the readiness with which it is called to mind in relation to disability.  People working in (the media) are both a part of our culture, and are themselves aware of it.  Thus when they want to include a disabled role, they are likely to think of  locomotor handicaps necessitating a wheelchair, and that this is an icon of disability that the public will recognise. (ps.25/6)

They are accepting that film-makers are as constrained by public conceptions as by their own imaginations, which, in turn, are equally socially mediated and constructed.


Cumberbatch and Negrine reveal the importance of seeing the 'disabled role' as an important benchmark for all the other roles in the film and they use as an example The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, citing the scene when Lee Van Cleef's character is spoken to by a double amputee called 'Half Soldier'.  Cumberbatch and Negrine not only suggest that amputees are seen as half human but that 'the incapacity of "Half Soldier" contrasts with the physical excellence of the character played by Lee Van Cleef' (p.44).  Consequently, we can see that for these authors impairment has more than its own specific metaphor in play in the narrative.  They give another example of when the police are chasing a criminal and a wheelchair is blocking the road causing the police to lose the criminal; they then state that such an incident shows more than just the ability of disabled people to block the road: 'it is almost as if disabled people are interfering with the proper running of society' (p.50).  Cumberbatch and Negrine are the first writers I have come across who say more than just 'stop it, it's not true', in relation to what they still see as negative representations of the disabled probably because they themselves are not disabled.  Interestingly, disabled critics (i.e. Longmore and Morris) write of the disabled as a homogeneous group much more than do the non-disabled writers.  Cumberbatch and Negrine state that impairment is a multiplicity of conditions that, at the very least, mean different things to different people.


One of the key ways that cinema perpetuates disability stereotypes, and/or archetypes, is by leaving certain things absent.  Cumberbatch and Negrine state that:

[I]t is instructive to examine what films tend not to emphasise.  We very rarely see the topic of disability introduced as a social issue.  The customary highly individualistic struggle masks the possibility that disability results not only from an individual's limitations but also from an environment which is designed with only able-bodied people in mind.  There are strong suggestions in many films that disability is about courage and achievement rather than suggesting that it is an issue for which society as a whole should take responsibility.            (p.54)

It is, for Cumberbatch and Negrine, important to look as much at what is absent as what is present; as such, it is a methodology which enables one to see how impairment is constructed as the Other.  Other writers fleetingly mention disability as the Other, but only as a reference to disability as a narrow stereotype that panders to public misconceptions about people with impairments.  They do not deconstruct the mechanisms by which it is constructed; nor do they relate it to a direct multiplicity of discourses that both affect and effect it. 


Cumberbatch and Negrine define three broad categories of disability stereotype in cinema: the criminal, the sub-human and the powerless or pathetic character.   I see no particular reason to challenge such categories; the main difference between this, and the other works looked at, and my research, which follows, is revealed in Cumberbatch and Negrine's conclusion on films and disability:

[I]t is difficult to avoid the impression that there is usually an ulterior motive for the inclusion of disabled characters in films and dramas.  Perhaps the most obvious is the use of suffering and disadvantage, followed by bravery and willpower, to stir tender emotions in the audience; though the mechanisms whereby this occurs remains elusive.  Other motives are the use of disabled characters [ ... ] to enhance an atmosphere of deprivation, mystery, violence and menace.                 (p.61)

The aim of my research is to reveal the mechanisms used to create such atmospheres and place them in a context of alternatives.  I would argue that Cumberbatch and Negrine under-estimate the power of the stereotype whilst at the same time acknowledging that they  recognising its insularity.  They state:

[N]ot to condone the actions of [the media but it] is first and foremost a medium of entertainment rather than a medium of 'social engineering'.  (p.102)

Agreeing, to some extent, I would argue that cinema and television enables people to construct their own sources of identity and interpret various social processes.  Positive images of disability would not, per se, create a more socially equal society because positive representations of disability are not possible if disability is a social construct; the negativity of it is given as a fact, a notion promoted by its existence as a category. 


Steve Dwoskin (1991) stresses the idea that disability suffers a media apartheid because stigma is always attached to disability and it is, by logical corollary, negative.  Dwoskin fails to see that disability can be nothing else but negative because it exists as a grouping or label, and is, consequently, created as a socially stigmatised existence that needs to be separated from the rest of normal society.  Its existence ensures that it is only capable of being interpreted in a negative manner by any group who sees, constructs, labels and interprets impairment as disability; logically speaking, 'interpreters' have no alternative if they wish to maintain the illusion that normality and abnormality are pathological realities as opposed to social constructs: i.e. that disability exists a priori.


The only writer to see that positive images of Otherness cannot exist in this society is Sander L. Gilman, who in Disease and Representation (1988) states that:

[A]ll images, artistic or scientific, whether they enter naively or self-consciously into our awareness, are abstractions from diverse phenomena.  (p.12)

As disability is constructed within society by a multiplicity of discourses, as a negative experience, as a pathological reality that speaks for itself, then it is irrational to expect a vital, normalising, part of social discourse (cinema) to break free from its own shackles, and those of a wider society.  David Hevey, in The Creatures Time Forgot (1992), shows how charity photography and advertising degrade and make dependent those disabled people they attempt to help (by black and white photography and dehumanising text).  Yet, where he advances the idea that alternatives are possible if charities do not exist (i.e. capitalism does not exist) he defeats his own argument; if charities do not exist, disability cannot exist as, by his own argument, it is they who create it out of their use and abuse of people with impairments.  Consequently, it must be stated that positive images of disability cannot exist in a society where disability is constructed or exists, be that by charities or any other disabling discourse.  Impairment will always exist, but disability need not; it is disability not the impairment which disables the impaired (Oliver, 1991(a) and (b); and Barnes, 1991).


The value of all of the texts that I have looked at is that they provide, in collaboration, an index of the way disability is seen to be stereotypically represented.  What they fail to do is to conclude that the significant differences in those stereotypes are vital to understanding how disability is used to construct and protect a fragile idea(l) of what is normal.  The impaired, as an image, are a fairly stable creation (in their many forms they are what normality isn't) of what the Other are.  The impaired as Other is aptly summarised in the texts discussed in a comprehensive conclusion by Cumberbatch and Negrine (indebted to Longmore), printed below.  For Cumberbatch and Negrine disability can be categorised fairly generally in the following ways (though, again, they use the term 'disability' when they actually mean impairment):


 - disability as an emblem of evil

 - disability as 'monstrous'

 - disability as a loss of one's humanity

 - disability as dependent and lacking in self-determination

 - disability as maladjusted

 - disability as sexual menace, deviancy, danger and impotence

 - disability as the object of fun or pity

 - disability as the object of charity

 - disability as having 'other' (abnormal) talents

 - disability as in need of extra effort or adaptation


Simply Stereotypes?


Much of the writing on impairment stereotypes seems to be little other than semantics; a dense jungle of words whose difference is negligible. The difference(s) between a stereotype, archetype, type, prototype and sub-type, or even a myth, seem to depend upon the perspective of the writer or the academic discipline that he, or she, is coming from; the inclusion of 'disability theory' only serves to muddy the waters even further.  The most problematic area of definition is between stereotype and archetype and for the sake of clarification I shall start by giving my definitions of the two key problematic areas.  A stereotype is a social construction (image, representation or whatever) which denies the truth of that which it represents by replacing it with an alternative which the stereotyper presumes to be true but which is, in reality, socially constructed.  A stereotype does not inherently acknowledge that it is a social construct but passes itself off as a truth.  An archetype, on the other hand, symbolically acts in a similar manner but is an interpretation that is presumed to be a universal truth without question by those who construct, consume and appraise it; it has the appeal of a timeless truth which the stereotype does not.  Significantly, an archetype may become a stereotype when the subjects of that archetype stand up and challenge the archetype. In each case there is no acknowledgement that they are social constructs but, and this is the key, archetypes are interpreted as true whereas stereotypes are interpreted as false by many who consume and appraise them.  The difference is academic, quite literally, but significant when trying to challenge images that seem to be all pervasive and are assumed to be universally true (i.e. of the impaired).  


In general terms I would argue that images, and the reality, of disability are seen more archetypally than stereotypically (the accepted view) because disability and abnormality are seen as axiomatic; as self-evidently abhorrent or as a natural part of Otherness, unlike gender and race.  The next chapter focuses on this more specifically when I use A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg to analyse the issue in depth.  I shall also establish that the films discussed have enough shared features to constitute a specific body of work which would warrant us calling such movies definitive of the civilising processes of culture and morality, what I term Normality Dramas; a genre type with its own specificities.  Though this aspect of the next chapter may be under-developed (it is a thesis in itself) it acts as a significant concluding point to encourage further analysis and debate in the light of the following chapters.


The reason most existing writing argues that disability is portrayed stereotypically is partly because it is premised upon such a broad definition of what a stereotype is; thus, little escapes its parameters.  Barnes, in Disabling Imagery & The Media (1992) writes that:

[D]isability stereotypes which medicalise, patronise,  criminalise and dehumanise disabled people abound in  books, films, on television and in the press. (p.38)

I would not argue with Barnes' view that the images of impairment in the media are somewhat repetitive and seem to be particularly enduring in that they medicalise, patronise, criminalise and dehumanise those portrayed as disabled, but that alone does not make them stereotypes.  'Part Two' of Barnes' monograph is sub-titled 'Commonly Recurring Media Stereotypes' and this sub-title itself seems to encompass the definition of stereotypes that Barnes uses.  For Barnes recurrence alone seems to make an image stereotypical, but - and this is perhaps my whole point - that they are enduring and pervasive, and 'commonly recurring', would indicate that they are more than mere stereotypes; more like archetypes or myths in fact.  That Barnes then lists what he considers to be a fairly exhaustive taxonomy of stereotypes, including eleven sub-types, further indicates, as stated above, that the definition being used is a fairly broad one.


Barnes' eleven stereotypes of disability imagery are: the disabled person as pitiable and pathetic (which would include The Raging Moon  and The Elephant Man); as an object of violence; as sinister and evil; as atmosphere or curio; as 'super cripple' (which would include My Left Foot); as an object of ridicule; the disabled person as their own worst and only enemy (which would include Duet For One); as burden (which would include A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg); as sexually abnormal (which would include Whose Life is It Anyway?); as incapable of participating fully in community life; and the disabled person as normal.   When Barnes states in the first line of 'Part Two: Commonly Recurring Media Stereotypes' that: 'the link between impairment and all that is socially unacceptable was first established in classical Greek Theatre' (ibid, p.15), it becomes fairly clear that even he sees the images as slightly more than stereotypes, yet he doesn't go all the way and label them as cultural archetypes, or even myths, about disability and the impaired.


It could be argued that archetypes are simply unrecognised stereotypes.  To be more precise, an archetype becomes a stereotype when those that are represented stand up and say they have had enough of being portrayed mythically and/or archetypally; after all, stereotypes by definition imply an awareness of their social construction, whereas archetypes and myths lead one to infer a degree of truthfulness of representation.  It is that inference of 'truthfulness' which I would argue makes some representations of disabled people archetypal rather than stereotypical; especially in their reception and initial construction by film-makers.  As most of the writers discussed seem to be more polemical than seminal I would not doubt that their use of the word stereotype is functional rather than highly analytical; in other words, what they are really saying is that they don't like the way disabled people have been portrayed so far, as it doesn't reflect their perception of the realities (or political dimensions) of physical or mental impairment and disablement.


Impairment imagery has yet to be fully understood, and as a movement disabled people are, at present, much more concerned with getting their point across than with the nuances of theory or philosophy.  Such a perspective will, undoubtedly, be more beneficial in the short term, though its long term drawbacks have yet to be fully understood.  It is the initial perspective which explains why most writers on disability imagery are often reluctant to get into too much detail; i.e. in providing definitions, or the scope, of terms like stereotypes.  Thus, popular conceptions of complex matters (stereotypes) are often left to stand by themselves as something that is either axiomatic or supplementary to requirements.  Even so, I have found it quite significant how filmic images of disability are always dismissed as being merely stereotypical.  Even Cumberbatch and Negrine's statistical work, which does not have a particularly polemical directive, falls in to the same trap as Barnes by using the similarly simplistic idea that repetition alone maketh a stereotype (see list on page 43).  Such lists are so encompassing that little else is left that one could be represented as being.


Cumberbatch and Negrine's philosophy in calling all images of disability stereotypical is revealed when they quote from a study of images of disability in newspaper advertising (Scott-Parker's, They Aren't in the Brief, 1989, p.16): '[S]tereotyped images define people by their disability [ ... ] people with differences (should be) seen first and foremost as people'.  The main thrust of Cumberbatch and Negrine's work (as is Scott-Parker's) is that the images are stereotyped because they are wrong both factually and morally; in other words, they are not as they - or other, interviewed, disabled people - would want them to be; what Macherey (1978) has labelled the 'normative fallacy' (which I return to below).  Which brings us back to the point that the emphasis of these works is polemical and not essentially academic in analysis.


Other writers on images of impairment or disability on film and in the media seem to suffer from the same polemical outbursts.  This is not to say that they are wrong, or that they should have been more analytical in their perspective, rather that they are doing a very specific political polemic in an easily understood popular shorthand.  For example, the work on 'cripples in literature' by Leonard Kriegal (1987); on images of the deaf in cinema by John Schuchman (1988); on Disability in Modern Children's Fiction (1985) by John Quicke; and the recent history of physical disability in American cinema by Martin F. Norden (1994) all do the same thing as Barnes, Cumberbatch and Negrine, and Scott-Parker: they tend towards being polemical - and indexical - rather than analytical.  Kriegal lists four stereotypes of disabled people (impaired characters) in literature: the 'demonic cripple'; 'the charity cripple'; 'the realistic cripple'; and 'the survivor cripple'.  Schuchman on the other hand lists eight deaf stereotypes: the dummy; the fake deaf person; the deaf person as an object of humour; the unhappy deaf person; the expert deaf lip-reader; the dummy label; the perfect speaker; and, finally, the curable deaf person.  Here we can see that many of the stereotypes attributed to disabled people in general are sub-divided for a sub-category of specific impairment disabled people: i.e. the Deaf.


Rarely does a work on disability imagery escape from being a list of repetitions and, as such, a list of supposed stereotypes.  Quicke occasionally seems to border upon a much more critical analysis of disability imagery but even he falls back on creating a taxonomy of types which includes the 'romantic' (where the potential of a disabled character is dramatically revealed to be in excess of their real capabilities) and the positive stereotype (the pseudo-normal abnormal).  But Quicke does give us a clue to his definition of a stereotype, when he writes that:

[I]n general , the problem with stereotypes is that even when they are 'favourable' (e.g. as when the child is portrayed as a 'virtuous victim') they are still counter-productive  [ ... ]   a stereotype is  a trap because it restricts the characterisation to one dominant social identity.  (p.156) 

For Quicke, a stereotype is that which 'restricts characterisation' or, in other words, fails to present the disabled character as having multiple opportunities within any given narrative.  Apart from the fact that most narratives close off most opportunities for all their characters (closure in one of the key pleasures narratives offer that life doesn't) I would argue that disabled people are often highly developed characters (often more than any other character in a narrative whether filmic or novelistic) but that the characterisation is not to the disabled critics' liking so it is dismissed as stereotyped when in fact, at least by Quicke's own definition, it is not. 


As some academics have written (Dyer, 1993; Perkins, 1979; and Oakes et al, 1994) stereotypes can be complex in character; in the very least they imply extensive subliminal information and one stereotype may reinforce another stereotype (even though it may be absent from the context of the original one).  Quicke actually hints at an awareness of this complexity and mutual support, as does Norden, when they both mention the way in which disabled characters often reinforce stereotypical views about women and their normative roles as carers and 'earth mothers' to the abnormal.  Quicke (p.158) writes that: 'if the mother is always portrayed as the key figure in caring for the disabled child to the exclusion of a father, then this can only reinforce the conventional view of a woman's role'.  Such a perspective could easily be applied to My Left Foot (see chapter below on the family).  Norden (p.315), on the other hand, writes: 'the stereotype of physically disabled people is conspicuously related to gender issues'.  Sadly, he then goes on to explain that in his view all images of disability in mainstream films are the enactment of the Oedipus scenario; something I cannot accept as not all people see, or treat, or interpret disability imagery of the impaired in a universally uniform manner.  Such an essentialist theory as psychoanalytic theory is, is suspect and, as such, a normalising 'eugenics of the mind', as Davis (1995, p.39) calls it.  Disability is a social construct, not an innate psychological state of being.


One final issue is the question of the 'Kernel of Truth' debate which seems central to much stereotype discourse (Perkins, 1979; Oakes et al, 1994; and Leyens et al, 1994).  The problem with relying upon such criteria is highlighted by this quote from Quicke (1985, p.157): '[E]ven the stereotype of the disabled person always being "brave" is objectionable, because for many disabled persons it is a distortion of reality'.  Alternatively, such a 'stereotype' actually acknowledges that for many disabled persons it is not a distortion of reality; thereby making the 'Kernel of Truth' debate far too empirically dependent (see Neale, 1993; and  Oakes et al, 1994) to be of much constructive use.  I would argue that to go through life in a disabling society that more often than not inflicts unnecessary pain, hate, stress, strain and intolerable barriers on the impaired, does require courage.


It is perhaps the individual experience of impairment - which is ignored in most disability theory (even though I accept that it is not part of the Social Model of disability), let alone disability imagery criticism - which is the key to understanding why, and how, many disabled people enjoy these negative and 'recurring' stereotypes of disability.  The 'Kernel of Truth' debate seems in reality to be fairly, though not totally, irrelevant when one considers the stereotype.  This is perhaps at the core of how Dyer (1993, p.72) can write that stereotypes can offer: 'an image of otherness in which it is still possible to find oneself'.  As I have said elsewhere although cinema and its images individualise what are social problems - or socially constructed inequalities - such situations are experienced in everyday life on an individual basis; after all, we exist as individuals. 


Oakes et al (1994) devote their entire study of stereotypes to developing the idea that stereotypes are highly complex and actually reflect the true realities of inter-group relations within society.  They write: 'stereotypes represent group-level realities' (ibid, p.193); not objective realities but the realities of inter-class/group conflicts, interests and identities, which, by extension, means that the apparently objective realities that are so often held up to invalidate stereotypes are not applicable in an analysis of stereotypes.  Thus the 'Kernel of Truth' debate about stereotypes should not be about an individual's lived reality, or essential truth, but about a higher level of socio-political reality; only then can we acquire a better understanding of the question of ideological function and discursive practices of stereotypes and archetypes.



Barnes, C., 1996, The Social Model: Myths and Misconceptions in Coalition, August 1996:27-35