In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disability

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Magazines
  • Film Festivals
  • Film, Arts, and Literature Studies
  • Film and General Media Studies
  • Film and Interactive Media Studies
  • Genres
  • Individual Productions
  • Specific Disabling Circumstances
  • Disability and Other Identity Factors
  • Disabled Veterans
  • Legal and Bioethical Issues
  • Freakery
  • Pedagogy
  • Behind-the-Scenes Studies

Cinema and Media Studies Disability
Martin Norden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0078


The study of moving-image representations of persons with disabilities (PWDs) is a young and vibrant subset of cinema and media studies, itself a relatively youthful field. The vast majority of books and articles on the subject were published in the 1990s or later and reflect a growing awareness of—indeed, hinge on the concept of—disability as a social construct. The research into film and disability is inextricably connected to the development of another interdisciplinary field of inquiry: disability studies, which emerged from the disability rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s and a desire to address concerns about ableist prejudice, discrimination, and indifference. Inspired to some extent by the developing fields of women’s studies and various minority studies (e.g., African American, Native American, queer), disability studies was hindered in its growth by the decades-long dominance of a certain way of thinking about disability called the medical model: the widespread, retrograde belief that disability is primarily a pathological problem to be overcome, not a socially constructed identity factor. With the establishment of the Society for Disability Studies in 1982, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and other key developments, however, the field matured significantly. University-level courses and scholarly journals dedicated to disability studies slowly but steadily increased across the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries during this time. The field reached a milestone in 1993 when the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez hosted the first scholarly conference devoted to disability studies in the arts and humanities, and it arrived at another in 1998 when the University of Illinois at Chicago established the first PhD program in disability studies in the United States. The earliest studies that examined the construction of disability in moving-image media were quantitative in nature and published in old-line medical-model journals. They were largely the output of a particularly industrious scholar named E. Keith Byrd. Alone or, more often, in collaboration with a colleague, Byrd published a series of such studies during the late 1970s and 1980s. Bearing such titles as “Feature Films and Disability” and “Disability in Full-Length Feature Films” and appearing in such journals as Journal of Rehabilitation, International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, and Rehabilitation Literature, Byrd’s articles tended to be brief, numbers-heavy, and laced with less-than-telling insights. (Among the observations in one such study were “that the film industry does utilize a variety of disabilities in its dramatizations” and “that disability is not totally ignored by the film industry.”) His efforts marked a start, however, and the following studies pick up where Byrd’s work leaves off.

General Overviews

Included in this section are single-authored or jointly authored books and articles on the general topic of disability representation in moving-image media. Norden 1994, though dated, is the most comprehensive in its coverage, and Alegre de la Rosa 2003 is heavily influenced by it. Black and Pretes 2007, Darke 1998, Hayes and Black 2003, and Shakespeare 1999 work well as introductions to film imagery, as does Makas 1993 for television imagery. Safran 1998 has value as a survey of pre-2000s literature. All are heavily indebted to Longmore 1985, a milestone in the field. Klobas 1988 (cited under Reference Works and National Cinemas: North America) is well worth considering here despite its vintage.

  • Alegre de la Rosa, Olga María. La discapacidad en el cine (Disability in Film). Barcelona: Ediciones Octaedro, 2003.

    Based largely on Norden 1994, this study offers a history of disability depictions in English- and Spanish-language films, analyzes the stereotypes contained therein, and makes pedagogical suggestions. In Spanish.

  • Black, Rhonda S., and Lori Pretes. “Victims and Victors: Representation of Physical Disability on the Silver Screen.” Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 32.1 (Spring 2007): 66–83.

    DOI: 10.2511/rpsd.32.1.66

    Analyzes eighteen films created between 1975 and 2004 in light of the stereotype categories developed in Biklen and Bogdan 1977 (cited under Film and General Media Studies). Notes that the pitiable and evil stereotypes were among the fewest to be represented; however, filmmakers continued to create damaging images such as the asexual PWD and the PWD without meaningful employment.

  • Darke, Paul A. “Understanding Cinematic Representation of Disability.” In The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives. Edited by Tom Shakespeare, 181–197. London: Cassell, 1998.

    Excellent and quite accessible overview of the field as of the late 1990s, complete with a review of the literature to date. A highlight is its application of film genre scholar Rick Altman’s seven genre characteristics to what Darke refers to as the “normality” drama (films in which struggling to overcome PWDs are cured, die, or feign ablebodiedness) to make the case that such films indeed constitute a genre.

  • Hayes, Michael T., and Rhonda S. Black. “Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity.” Disability Studies Quarterly 23.2 (Spring 2003): 114–132.

    This article draws on the work of Michel Foucault to illustrate the point that a “discourse of pity” still characterizes mainstream movies depicting PWDs even when the portrayals are generally more positive. Erroneously labels My Left Foot as a Hollywood film.

  • Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures.” Social Policy 16.1 (Summer 1985): 31–37.

    A landmark work in the conjoined field of film studies and disability studies. This famous article, which underpins much of the international research to follow, was reprinted in Smit and Enns 2001 (cited under Anthologies), Gartner and Joe 1987 (cited under Film and General Media Studies), and Longmore 2003 (cited under Individual Productions). Essential reading.

  • Makas, Elaine. “Changing Channels: The Portrayal of People with Disabilities on Television.” In Children and Television: Images in a Changing Sociocultural World. Edited by Gordon L. Berry and Joy Keiko Asamen, 255–268. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE, 1993.

    Laments the lingering presence of old disability stereotypes (e.g., courageous/inspirational, humorous, pitiable, evil) on television, but notes an increase in “real person with a disability” portrayals particularly in such programs as Another World, L.A. Law, and Sesame Street. The article’s greatest deficiency is its heavy reliance on data from an unpublished and, therefore, unavailable study that Makas herself wrote in 1981.

  • Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

    Historical overview of disability-themed films created mainly by the mainstream US movie industry. About one hundred years’ worth of films are discussed. In 1998, Escuela Libre Editorial in Madrid published a Spanish translation titled El cine del aislamiento: El discapacitado en la historia del cine, with dust jacket notes by the internationally acclaimed writer-director Pedro Almodóvar.

  • Safran, Stephen P. “The First Century of Disability Portrayal in Film: An Analysis of the Literature.” Journal of Special Education 31.4 (Winter 1998): 467–480.

    DOI: 10.1177/002246699803100404

    A meta review in the sense that it centers not so much on the disability images themselves but the scholarly literature on them. Examines and evaluates the varying approaches (e.g., historical, political, quantitative) that have emerged from a wide range of fields in the past few decades. Safran’s interdisciplinary perspective is most appropriate and welcome. A very useful supplement to accompany the literature.

  • Shakespeare, Tom. “Art and Lies? Representations of Disability on Film.” In Disability Discourse. Edited by Mairian Corker and Sally French, 164–172. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1999.

    Summarizes the movie depictions of PWDs and observes their typically problematic nature (e.g., their tendency to be crude and simplistic, the frequent objectification of PWDs, the impairments taking on undue weight as defining aspects of disabled characters). At the same time, the author warns of the dangers of “overcensorious” readings of disability-themed films.

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