Disability Representation in Pop Culture

11 Min Read

R E C O M M E N D A T I O N – M O V I E

Rabab Rayan

Representation in media has become a hot topic in the last couple of years, with moviegoers demanding diversity in the film, tv, and award shows that we all watch, for them to be proper representatives of the world we live in. The criticism was brought forward because the all-White casts and heroes that Hollywood likes to portray have become sickening to all.

Representation allows for people from different races, cultures, and ideas to come forward and let their ideas see the light of day; it highlights new branches of art and allows artists to let their creativity go free. Here, we will talk about films and TV shows that have represented and misrepresented disabilities, the issues they caused, and the harm that may come from them.

Taare Zameen Par (2007)

Taare Zameen Par is an Indian film directed and produced by Amir Khan. In the film, Ishaan is a dyslexic eight-year-old child whose imagination makes him excel in art, but fail in academic studies. His inability to succeed in his studies marks him off as lazy and slacking in school. Nikumbh (Amir Khan), an art teacher at the school where Ishaan studies, diagnoses him with dyslexia and takes steps to help him get out of his shell by teaching him using remedial techniques developed by dyslexia specialists. Consequently, Ishaan’s grades and general demeanour start to get better. The movie has been applauded in both India and abroad for its portrayal of dyslexia and ways to help dyslexic people. The character of Ishaan, his life, and the many issues that he faces have been considered an accurate portrayal of dyslexia and its victims; something that cannot be said of some films on this list. 

Community (2009-2015)

Community is an American sitcom by Dan Harmon, concentrating on the pupils’ and instructors’ lives at Greendale Community College. The show has been termed as highly inventive by critics for taking on almost every trope known in Hollywood.

Abed Nadir from the critically acclaimed show, Community, is one of the most loved characters from the show with quite an extensive repository of knowledge on pop culture, and the ability to relate that to his surroundings in the show. Abed is an intelligent character with keen observation and the ability to speak three different languages. Still, he cannot communicate appropriately with his fellow peers in Greendale because of his inability to pick up social and emotional cues. Abed as a character has been well-received by the Asperger’s Community as a whole because of how well thought out and accurate his character is in terms of representation. His character is not thought of as being different or used as a block for jokes, but as an accepted member of the show who should not have to change to adjust. 

Paa (2009)

The film stars the father-son duo Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, along with Vidya Balan. Auro (Amitabh Bachchan) is a 12-year-old kid with a rare genetic disorder called progeria. Mentally he is twelve, but physically he looks five times older, which causes some friction, but despite which he is a happy boy. He lives with his single mother who is a doctor, and his maternal grandmother. His father (Abhishek Bachchan) is a young and brash politician who is unaware of his existence, and when they come to meet by chance, a bond is created between the two. The rest of the film follows the two as they become friends and share perspectives. It is quite a heart-wrenching film with some really well-placed plot twists and narrative. Despite having disabilities, Auro doesn’t let it drag him down and is always up to something.

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man is a drama film from the 80s starring a young Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. In the film, Charlie Babbitt is a young, brash luxury car dealer who, after the death of his estranged father, comes to learn that all his father’s assets have been bequeathed to his brother Raymond, an autistic savant, someone whose existence Charlie was not aware of. In order to get to know his brother and somehow get control of his brother’s newfound assets, Charlie agrees to travel with him back to Los Angeles by car as Raymond doesn’t like flying. Along the trip, Charlie gets to learn quite a lot about his brother and they form a brotherly bond. 

Although it found both critical acclaim and box office success at the time of release, it has since come to be criticised for its portrayal of autism, which created the stereotype that autistic people commonly have savant-level skills; in reality, only a handful of people on the autism spectrum have been found to be savants. 

The Accountant (2016)

The Accountant starring Ben Affleck is an action-thriller film where our lead character, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), poses as a CPA while he makes his money as an accountant for mafia and terrorist organizations facing internal embezzlement situations. Christian is diagnosed as having high-functioning autism, but his military father, to ensure that his son doesn’t get exploited, has him and his brother trained in martial arts and lead a life of stoicism.

As an action-thriller film, it has quite a number of action scenes and fights between Christian and those that are trying to kill him. The fight scenes and all the blood make the movie all the better. A number of plot twists at the end of the film set it up as a must-watch film for thriller lovers.

However, the movie has been criticised for its stereotypical representation of people on the autism spectrum and representing autism without the involvement of any person with autism or any disabilities in the film whatsoever. It has also been criticised for its portrayal of someone on the autism spectrum having savant-level skills: A criticism brought before other Hollywood films.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump is a comedy-drama film from the early 90s, with Tom Hanks playing the role of our titular character, Forrest Gump, on his many adventures and quest for love. Forrest, at a young age, is found to be of low IQ, and his legs had to be fitted with bracings to correct a curved spine. He becomes the victim of bullying in his early childhood because of his physical deformities. The endearing character of Forrest also makes him the victim of ridicule throughout his life. The film has a special place in the hearts of moviegoers around the world. But one small thing that might skip the notice of most viewers is the representation of disabled people in the film, which is not limited to Forrest alone. The character of Lt Dan, an injured Vietnam War soldier who lost both his legs and has to use a wheelchair and the neglect he has to endure due to his situation, makes quite the impact in an industry where such representation didn’t take place at the time, or even now after two and a half decades of the release of the film. 

I am Sam (2001)

I am Sam is a melodrama from 2001 starring Sean Penn as an intellectually disabled father taking care of his bright and curious daughter, Lucy, with his group of supportive friends who pitch in to help when Sam cannot do it alone. Sam fights for the custody of his daughter Lucy when her mother abandons them. He tries to prove that he is a capable father with the help of an infamous lawyer.

The film, when initially released, received awful reviews from critics, but is generally loved by viewers even today. It has been appreciated for its plot and its attempt to represent people with intellectual disabilities.

My Name is Khan (2010)

My Name is Khan is directed by Karan Johar, and stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol — an iconic duo in Indian Cinema whose performance in this film makes the film much better. The film is set in India and the US, and Shah Rukh Khan plays the role of Rizwan Khan, an autistic man born and raised in a middle-class Muslim family in Mumbai, India. He is sponsored by his brother to travel to the US and live there with his family. The movie is set against all the backdrop of the violence, stigma, and prejudice that Muslims have faced after 9/11. 

The film can be considered nothing short of a masterpiece, covering issues relating to race, religion, hate, terrorism, and the injustice and discrimination faced by those who had little to no influence behind the 9/11 tragedy. It shows us many perspectives from people of differing opinions, as well as how those opinions came to be. It is a movie that teaches us to accept the differences in us and embrace them.


Rabab Rayan is a Business undergrad trying to excel academically but failing spectacularly.


Share this Article
Leave a comment