Disabilities Aren’t New, but Oscar Recognition Sure Is

Tim Gray
·4-min read

This year, there were 366 films in Oscar contention, with 50-plus nominated — including three centering on disabled people. While that isn’t much, it’s three more than most years and, sadly, it qualifies disability awareness as an innovation.

The teams behind Amazon’s “Sound of Metal,” Netflix’s documentary “Crip Camp” and live-action short “Feeling Through” all express appreciation at the progress, but they’re aware that authentic depiction is an ongoing issue.

More from Variety

Supporting actor Paul Raci, one of the six Oscar nominations for “Sound of Metal,” says: “We haven’t turned the corner, but there is an opening in the consciousness, an expansion of awareness, and there are some initiatives to open up jobs to the deaf and disabled. We’ve heard this before. All we can do is keep expanding awareness, to make sure that films represent the population that we all live in.”

Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, co-writers/directors of “Crip Camp,” held a virtual reunion to celebrate the anniversary of the January 2020 premiere at Sundance.

The doc begins in 1971 at Camp Jened in New York, a summer camp for teens with disabilities. The film then traces the activism that was fueled at the camp, through the successful 1990 fight for the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Newnham describes the Sundance standing ovation as an “otherworldly experience. You could feel that people got it.” LeBrecht — who might be the first wheelchair-using director recognized by Oscar — adds: “Something shifted that night. It was like we came into our own. People were seeing us not as ‘invalids,’ but as human beings.”

That’s the goal of those with a disability, who make up 20%-25% of the U.S. population but are wildly under-represented in Hollywood films, despite recent industry vows of inclusion.

Writer-director Doug Roland’s “Feeling Through” shows an encounter between a homeless youth (Steven Prescod) and a deafblind man — played by deafblind actor Robert Tarango, a groundbreaking (and memorable) piece of casting.

Asked what Hollywood executives should know, Tarango says: “Simply don’t be afraid. ‘Feeling Through’ has shown the community at large who we are. They may never have thought of us — other than Helen Keller — as part of the community. We live independently and we’re here. We are part of your everyday life. We walk the Earth, we go to work, we do everything that you do, so why wouldn’t we be represented?”

Marlee Matlin is an exec producer of the short. She won a lead actress Oscar in 1986 for “Children of a Lesser God,” and while many actors have received Oscars for playing a disabled person (Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis, Al Pacino, et al.), the only authentic honorees are Matlin and Harold Russell (“The Best Years of Our Lives”).

Aside from acting, Matlin has been a tireless advocate. She says: “There are plenty of people who don’t think outside the box. We can approach them and educate them, or we can create our own project. Authenticity is so crucial in all aspects of the entertainment business. Deafness or deafblindness, or any disability, shouldn’t be a costume that an able-bodied person puts on and then takes off. We are people, not costumes. If they listen to us, fine. If not, we’ll find someone who does listen to us.”

Judy Heumann, whom LeBrecht describes as “one of the great civil-rights leaders of our time,” is a Camp Jened alumna and a prominent activist. At the Sundance premiere, an audience member expressed amazement at what the film revealed about disability struggles, asking, “Why don’t we know this story?” Heumann said, “This is an educated audience. If you don’t know, maybe you weren’t listening.”

Next year’s Oscar race might also include disability-themed films. The biggest hit of Sundance 2021 was “CODA,” starring Matlin. CODA stands for children of deaf adults; Raci is one: American Sign Language was his first language, with English coming later.

“Sound of Metal” director Darius Marder questions the idea that disabled people have reached a turning point this year. Marder says, “I don’t think we ever get there. That’s so much of what this film is about. If you passed Ruben [the character played by Riz Ahmed] on the street, you wouldn’t know what he’s been going through. We all look at each other and have no idea that he’s another us. Our call is to continue to be curious and try to be compassionate and open. It’s never-ending.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.