Over 60 people participated in the ESRC/IAA funded event on “Films and the Rest of Us,” a workshop on films and disability rights which was held as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science (FOSS) in November 2021 to discuss the impact and influence of films on disability inclusion and perception of disabilities within ablest societies. The hybrid workshop, organised by PhD student, Ngozi Marion Emmanuel of the School of Media, Communication and Sociology, University of Leicester, was to raise awareness and initiate discussions on the role of films in shaping disability identities and influencing societal perception of people with disabilities.
Introducing the workshop, Ms Emmanuel noted that films are one of the most enduring media in the world and with the large audience that films command, they have become very pivotal in influencing salient issues and contributing to opinion formation. She went further to note the pivotal role that films can play in disability advocacies and rights such as engendering positive disability identity and framing new anti-ableist narratives.
Presenting a paper entitled “Hair loss as a metonymy of cancer disability in film and other visual media,” Dr Lieve Gies, Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology observed that the Equality Act 2010 automatically classes someone as disabled once they are diagnosed with cancer for the purpose of the Act. According to Lieve, this meant that cancer portrayal in films and other visual media is important in the way society interacts with and understands cancer survivors. Lieve further observed that cancer is an important narrative device commonly employed in the tearjerker genre in films, pointing out that “cinematic and other cultural representations sustain and reproduce stereotypes and taboos with potentially harmful consequences and worse outcomes for people with disabilities.”
Whilst sharing his experiences from making documentary film projects on disabilities, Keith Allot, a staff at the University of Leicester and Director of Bad Shoes Films in Leicester underscored the importance of voice and creating spaces for disabled actors in films as well as honesty in telling disability stories. Keith recommended crew diversity in making disability stories in such a way that portrays inclusion and empathy. Also sharing his own experience, a disability rights advocate and lecturer at Teesside University, Dr Simon Mckeown observed that there is a marked difference between disability and impairments noting that it is disabilities that stop people from engaging with society and living their full lives and not merely impairments. In his words, Simon said, “society chooses who to disable or enable through simple everyday activities and policies.”
For Dr Anna Claydon, an Associate Professor at the School of Media, Communication and Sociology, how films portray disabilities is increasingly important in a networked world. Presenting her research on “Autism on Films and other issues”, Anna noted that issues around seeing unseen disabilities, perceptions of autism, autism and gender, representing the unrepresented and performing the spectrum, were some of the ways films could contribute to making disabilities an integrable difference. Anna wondered if the scope of disability representation is limited by dominant social concerns, adding that “We can say that the limited representation of autism and other disabilities on films and specifically more nuanced engagement with spectrum on film (And elsewhere) is because it is not perceived as being so socially relevant or important. This is the point where advocacies and voice begin to matter.”
Some of the participants who were people with disabilities themselves acknowledged that the workshop had been very helpful in sensitising against the common stereotypes and frames through which filmmakers largely portray disabilities whilst they workshopped on initial recommendations on how films can beneficially represent disabilities without sentimentalising and stereotyping the disabled body.