10 Movies That Get People With Special Needs Right

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Hollywood has a reputation for being progressive, but they’re stuck in the dark ages when it comes to individuals with disabilities. The prevailing attitude is one of unrealistic expectations (I Am Sam), that seeking a “cure” is all that matters (Avatar), a disability results in special perceptive powers (Rain Man), the disabled are perpetual children (The Other Sister) or, worst of all, that death is preferable (Million Dollar Baby).

Individuals with disabilities are just that, individuals. They have emotions, desires, bad habits… you know, just like people. Fortunately, a handful of films have shown that there’s no need to show sympathy or to treat them differently. Just show the character for what they are: a person.

10. Boyz N the Hood

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A secondary character in this groundbreaking film was Lil’ Chris, one of the Boyz who hangs out with Ice Cube’s crew. Chris was played by Regi Green, a paraplegic since the age of six when he was shot in a random act of violence.

The first act takes place when the Boyz are pre-teens and Lil’ Chris isn’t in a wheelchair. It then skips ahead seven years and he’s now in the chair. No explanation of how is ever given, leaving us to assume it was an act of violence. It doesn’t matter — he’s still just one of the Boyz and has no problem going wherever they do. And early in the movie there’s a key scene where he’s discussing AIDS and STDs with the other Boyz, which were even bigger issues in the early ’90s than they are today. It was a subtle way of showing that he too is sexually active.

While the film clearly has us side with the main protagonist Tre and his best friend Ricky, it’s left ambiguous as to how we’re supposed to feel about Ice Cube and his Boyz. Lil’ Chris is just another one of them, and at no point do we view him any differently.

9. There’s Something About Mary

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The Farrelly brothers devote a great deal of time to organizations that work towards the advancement of individuals with special needs, and cast many in their movies as well. There’s Something About Mary has three notable examples of the latter. At one point Ted has to help his boss’ brother move. The brother is played by Peter Farrelly’s old friend, the late quadriplegic actor Danny Murphy. He promptly berates Ben and generally treats him like crap, proving that anyone can be a jerk!

There’s another short scene where Mary is delivering lunches to a group of individuals with special needs. The scene has no real plot relevance, but the Farrellys cast real individuals with special needs to give the scene credibility and the actors a valuable experience.

Most significantly there’s Warren, Mary’s older brother with a mild mental disability. He’s played by an actor who doesn’t have a disability (W. Earl Brown), but he’s one of the most accurate portrayals ever. Warren masturbates, is frequently in his own little world and doesn’t like to have his ears touched. He’s also capable of taking care of himself, has relationships and acts like an adult. This is all plot relevant, and is often used for laughs. Warren is clearly the most important person in Mary’s life, his mother and step-father clearly love him, and the trust he gains with Ted is a subtle but important plot point in the end.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives

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The Best Years of Our Lives,released in 1946, is about soldiers coming home and readjusting to civilian life. Many soldiers came home with permanent disabilities, including Harold Russell, who lost both hands in a training accident. He continued to serve in the army by making a training film, which was seen by director William Wyler. He decided that the otherwise untrained actor would be perfect to play the role of Homer, a young soldier who comes home with prosthetic hooks instead of hands.

The reality and aftermath of war weren’t discussed much at the time, but Wyler wanted to shove them down the audience’s throat. There’s a memorable scene where Russell removes the hooks and shows the nubs at the end of his arms, shocking audiences in a time that considered wounds to be better left out of sight and out of mind.

In addition, there are frequent moments throughout the movie where we see Homer performing ordinary tasks which many perceived to be beyond his means, like lighting and holding a cigarette. The film was credited as an inspiration to the many disabled veterans who came home and feared social stigma.

7. Ray

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This 2004 biopic of the legendary Ray Charles documents his rise to fame and his turbulent troubles with drug abuse and messy relationships. Oh, and he went blind at a young age.

We give that famous fact passing mention because that’s how the movie treated it as well. There’s one powerful flashback which shows how his mother used “tough love” and refused to assist him shortly after he lost his sight. A few early scenes also show us how capable he is, and how he’s able to rely on his hearing and memory to get around without assistance. But the rest of the movie focuses on his many personal issues, including turmoil with his band-mates and trauma from his brother’s death. The fact that he’s blind is just that — a fact that doesn’t change his remarkable career and his troubled life.

6. The Blues Brothers

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Ray Charles again! In this cult classic, Ray Charles has a memorable cameo as a music store owner. The scene is most remembered for him singing “Shake a Tail Feather” while the crowd outside goes into a spontaneous dance routine.

But before that, he’s having a discussion with the Blues Brothers when a young boy sneaks towards a guitar with the clear intent of stealing it. Ray promptly pulls out a gun, fires a few precision shots into the wall and scares the crap out of the kid. He then tells the boy to “go on, git!” and laments the fact that a boy that young has gone bad. So, can this Ray see? Or is he just so perceptive that no one can get away with anything with him around? Either way, who cares? It’s hilarious!

Later in the movie there’s a brief scene where Ray hangs a Blues Brothers promotional poster in his store, only he hangs it upside-down and nods approvingly. This sums Ray Charles up in a nutshell. He’s blind, but who cares? No reason to dance around it, why not have a sense of humor? This commercial he did for Diet Pepsi sums up his outlook on the matter best.

5. Stuck on You

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Stuck on you is another Farrelly brothers movie, this one starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins. It wasn’t very successful, mostly because promotional material made it look like Dumb and Dumber as conjoined twins when in reality it was anything but.

It’s debatable whether being a conjoined twin is considered a disability, but there are certainly stereotypes, while in this film the two guys are capable and self-sufficient. Likewise, they’re very much two individuals with different personalities, interests and desires. In other words, they break the stereotype about being one person.

Danny Murphy features again as a secondary character who is friends with the brothers, and there’s also Rocket, a mildly mentally disabled man who works in their restaurant. Rocket is played by Ray Valliere, a friend and frequent actor for the Farrelly brothers who has a similiar disability. There’s a bit of a “We’re here, get used to it” scene early when a jerk is condescending to Rocket and the brothers and other restaurant patrons come to his defense. This is a common theme in the movie — the good guys are completely indifferent to the characters with disabilities, and while all the bad guys are nasty to them they get their comeuppance.

During the credits Ray Valliere gives an impromptu heartfelt thank you speech to the cast and crew, which was so beloved by all involved they knew they had to include it in the movie. Likewise, a song during the credits is sung by George Schappell, a conjoined twin who sings country music.

4. Mac and Me

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You know this movie from its presence on virtually every critic’s “worst of all time” list. This may be the only list in the world that points out a positive of this atrocious 1988 E.T. ripoff/blatant advertisement for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. No matter how bad your life may seem at a given moment, it cannot be improved by sitting through this movie.

But we do have to give them credit for not exploiting the fact that the young boy who we may as well call Elliot was played by Jade Calegory, a young man with spina bifida who gets around in a wheelchair. Given the campy nature and blatant product placement of the film, it seems odd that promotions wouldn’t also appeal to it being an inspirational story of a developmentally disabled young man who gets caught up in some ridiculously sentimental claptrap. Instead he’s just treated like a regular kid, which we’ll consider a small victory.

3. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

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Gilbert  Grape is mostly remembered for starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio before they became the mega stars they are today. Others know it for having a morbidly obese woman who played their mom.

DiCaprio plays Arnie, a moderately mentally disabled teen mostly cared for by Depp’s Gilbert. The portrayal drew some criticism for being over the top and unrealistic, but the point was that many of Arnie’s behaviors were learned and that he acted like a child because he was treated like one. This is not a criticism of his family who clearly loves him, but they followed old ideas that he needs to be cared for rather than taught how to function in society.

Gilbert certainly has more on his plate than just Arnie, but the audience can sympathize with both his love for his little brother and the frustration that the care monopolizes so much of his life. There’s a gut-wrenching scene where Gilbert finally unloads and hits Arnie several times. He feels horrible afterwards, and realizes he can’t imagine life without his little brother. The film has some bad messages about how to deal with the mentally disabled, but that’s the whole point.

2. My Left Foot

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This biopic of Christy Brown, an Irish writer and painter with cerebral palsy, focuses mainly on his upbringing in a poor Dublin home full of siblings and a caring mother. In his early years he spends most of his time sitting in a corner observing everything. His family loves him, but is unaware that he has no mental defects — he just can’t speak clearly.

When his family discovers he has the same mental abilities they do, he becomes just another brother in a large family. At this point the movie basically becomes the story of a poor Irish family, complete with drinking, fighting and more drinking and fighting.

The title of the film refers to the one limb Christy can control, as the rest of his body has near constant spastic impulses. He would use that foot to do everything from play soccer, fight and eventually paint and type. While Christy is the main character, the focus of the film is more about his family’s acceptance allowing him to flourish under otherwise challenging circumstances.

1. The Ringer

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Another offering from the Farrelly brothers caps off our list. This 2005 movie stars Johnny Knoxville as Steve, who poses as mildly mentally disabled Jeffie so he can rig the Special Olympics. The premise sounds horrifying, and given that it stars an actor known to push every limit into the most dangerously uncomfortable territory imaginable many movie fans stayed away from this one. That was unfortunate, as it meets the ultimate goal of any movie about individuals with disabilities — it puts the individual first. It was also fully supported by the Special Olympics themselves, along with several other groups that promote the well-being of people with special needs.

The joke, which many people missed, is that Steve is so bad at pretending to have a mental disability that his peers in the Special Olympics see through his guise immediately. However, they want him to beat the stereotypical jerk jock and train him to defeat the feared Jimmy, and they have a blast playing with the old cliché. Of course, he also discovers that Special Olympians can also be very good athletes, and his seemingly guaranteed victory is anything but. Thanks to all of this, Steve develops close friendships with the other guys and in the end they all work together to build a community theater.

The film stars numerous individuals with disabilities, including Edward Barbanell, who has Down Syndrome, as major character Billy. It also has a dance party ending with The Kids of Widney High, a special education band, playing their version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Go ahead and try to watch the scene without smiling.

Not every movie gets sensitive subjects right.

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2 Comments

  1. These were all pretty good choices. I like to think people finally woke up to how offensive the disabled with “superpowers” portrayals that were so rampant in the 80s & 90.

  2. Anthony Tusler on

    Great list. You got most of my favorites. The 80s and 90s showed a lot of promise portraying disability. The industry seems to be ignoring our community of late. One addition I would make is “Coming Home.” John Voight did a lot of research hanging out with wheelchair users at Rancho in SoCal. It shows. I think he got it right. (Plus he got the girl.)

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