Portrayal of Wheelchair Users in Cinema

It's not an understatement to say that media, film in particular, has great power in shaping societal perceptions. Movies have a huge influence in the public's opinion on life, death, and everything in between. Taking on a subject in a popular film brings immediate attention, and can often skew the audience's interpretation of the issue. How have films influenced public perception of the disabled community? The truth is, people with disabilities have been vastly underrepresented in film. We know that the movie industry has shied away from the topic on the whole: while nearly 20% of the U.S. population has a disability, the proportion of disabled characters in movies is estimated to be only around 1%. We also know that virtually all roles of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.

Setting aside the problems of underrepresentation and lack of casting disabled actors, how has the movie industry handled disability? How is it shaping audience perception? Unfortunately, disabled characters often fall into stereotypes. Some of the most common are pitiable, sinister, despairing, burdensome, angelic, or endowed with superpowers. The audience is often encouraged to feel sympathy, rather than empathy for those who use a wheelchair. They are frequently portrayed as "others" and are seen in isolation. The focus is on the disability rather than the characters who happen to have a disability.

Some films handle this subject matter better than others, of course. Here is a look at a few well-known films featuring main characters coping with mobility issues. Entertainment value aside, does the disabled community believe they were hits or misses?

Me Before You (2016)

After Will becomes a quadriplegic due to a motorcycle accident, bubbly Louisa is hired by his parents to help look after him and hopefully give him a new lease on life. On the plus side, there are many sweet moments as their relationship develops, and Will is portrayed as an intelligent and handsome leading man. Louisa is able to look past the wheelchair and fall in love with Will despite having an athletic, nearly physically perfect boyfriend. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, however, Will chooses to end his life by means of assisted suicide. The message conveyed is that it's a tragedy to be in a wheelchair. So tragic, in fact, that it is better to be dead.

Me Before You

Reaction from the disabled community was overwhelmingly negative, resulting in protests and the co-opting of the film's hashtag into #MeBeforeEuthanasia. Ryan O'Connell, a writer with cerebral palsy, noted that "Since people don't really know how to treat [people with disabilities] like human beings, they put on their kid gloves, make a lot of sympathetic sad faces and call it a day. Me Before You is the movie version of exactly that."

The Intouchables (2011)

This award-winning French film is based on a true story. It explores the relationship between Philippe, a wealthy man who becomes a paraplegic after a paragliding accident, and Driss, the caregiver he hires from the projects. At the beginning of the film, Philippe is lacking social interaction and is suffering from depression. During the process of hiring a new caregiver, Driss, a welfare recipient, shows up with an utter lack of sympathy for Philippe's condition. It is exactly this lack of kid-gloves which gets him hired. As their quirky and meaningful relationship develops, Philippe regains a sense of joy and humor in life, even pursuing a romantic relationship again. Portrayed as equals, Philippe and Driss each offer the other something they are needing and it is the warmly portrayed relationship that is the focus of the film, rather than Philippe's disability.

The Intouchables

This film received nearly universal praise. Reviewer Chris Carr wrote, "As a person with a disability, I believe The Intouchables held as closely as possible to the actual daily experience of having a disability, and while comedy was achieved throughout, the movie managed to treat this subject with respect and overall accuracy." He continued, "In my experience, such works that involve disability often miss the mark. Either, they make the characters with disabilities overly sympathetic to a point where the movie lack authenticity, or movies manage to conflate physical challenges with other impairments that are not realistic. To my eye, The Intouchables largely avoided both pitfalls."

Avatar (2009)

In this record-breaking blockbuster, Marine Jake Sully is a paraplegic who takes the place of his dead twin brother on a mission to the distant, beautiful world of Pandora. The mission involves a greedy corporation with military backing stealing the planet's valuable energy resources and battling the peaceful native inhabitants, the Na'vi. Jake, who is promised a costly surgery to regain the use of his legs in exchange for his loyal participation, links with his "avatar" to infiltrate the Na'vi in order to gather information. He begins to bond witht he inhabitants, eventually falling love with one of them. Jake is thrilled to experience mobility again through the use of his avatar.


Avatar garnered mixed reactions from the disabled community. Paralympic skier and motivational speaker Josh Sundquist praised the film: "Like Sully, I began to long for the freedom that comes with four functioning limbs. This is why instead of being offended by Avatar, I found it deeply relatable and even affirming, because also like Sully, I eventually found an outlet that provided me a measure of that physical expression. The mere fact that the hero in this film is a paraplegic and makes no excuses for this, I think is a huge step regarding visibility for people with disabilities. And the sheer joy that he felt running for the first time as an avatar came across to the audience."

This positive view of the film is definitely not universally shared. Jennifer Proctor, in the article "A Failure of Imagination: The role of disability in Avatar" levels harsh criticism: "The wheelchair, as a mechanical substitution for legs, serves as a symbolic reminder of Jake's status as victim and pawn in the corporation's oppressive regime. In this narrative world, a body aided by equipment cannot succeed; only the "naturally" able will win. Ultimately, in Avatar, disability is a condition that must be escaped. Jake's disability is exploited for suspense in the climactic battle scene, as his useless human legs prevent him from reaching his life-saving breathing apparatus. He succeeds not with his disability, but in spite of it."

My Left Foot (1989)

In this true story, Daniel Day-Lewis won the best actor Academy Award for portraying Christy Brown who is born with cerebral palsy into a large Irish family. Brown's CP leaves him with almost no controlled mobility with the exception of his left foot. His speech is limited to mostly guttural sounds. Most outside the family mistakenly view him as intellectually and physically disabled. Even his own father grows to accept him only over time. Through his own courage and determination to show others he can do more than they expect of him, and the complete support of his strong-willed mother, he becomes a gifted painter, author, and poet, using only his left foot.

My Left Foot

This film was groundbreaking at a time when disabilities were dealt with much less sensitivity in media. Brown is skillfully portrayed as a character with depth; he has immense talent, intellect, and a wicked sense of humor. He emerges from the despair that at one point causes him to try to take his own life and goes to write, paint joyful watercolors, and marry his nurse. He comes off as neither a saint nor an object of pity. The film breaks the stereotype of those with disabilities as being the ones who always need help by being treated by his older siblings as an equal and by sticking up for members of his family and desiring to help them through their difficulties.

Rear Window (1954)

Jimmy Stewart stars in this classic Hitchcock thriller. L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries is a photographer who breaks his leg in a work-related accident and is relegated to a wheelchair in his New York apartment to heal. With little to occupy his time and frustrated by his sudden incapacitation, he begins to spy on his neighbors and gets vicariously involved in their personal dramas. He comes to believe that a particular neighbor has murdered his bedridden wife and carried her body off. With the help of his girlfriend and nurse, Jeffries heroically solves the murder, but not without first coming under attack from the perpetrator and falling out the "rear window," only to break his other leg.

Rear Window

This film is different from the others examined here in that Jeffries' disability is only temporary - the audience is fully aware that he will be free of his waist-high cast soon. However, the film does a good job of creating anxiety around the protagonist's immobility when he watches his girlfriend assaulted in an apartment across the way and is physically unable to help. And again, when he is under attack and can do no more than set off his camera's flash bulbs to disorient his attacker. Even though the entire premise of the film is based on Jeffries' disability, he is presented as a quick-witted hero and protagonist without falling into the trap of being either the pitiable victim or superhuman; it focuses more on the mystery.

So now it's your turn. What are some films you thought were great at expressing disability issues? How about some flops? What do you think makes a hit or a miss? Join the conversation in the comments below!

About the Author


Kelly Padilla lives in Littleton, Colorado with her husband, Jon, and three daughters. She is a Colorado native who graduated from the University of Colorado journalism school and worked as a video producer for a number of years. She currently works at a STEM middle school with students who have learning disabilities. In her spare time, Kelly enjoys reading, movies, and time spent with friends.

Most of the stories here on Live Quickie were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 1/2/2018 12:00:00 AM

Alicia Kennelly
Personally, I think the characterization of Me Before You is unfair. First, he has many other deteriorating physical conditions other than being quadripalegic. Second, assisted suicide is NOT euthanasia. The character makes his own informed and free choice to end his life, a choice that others find difficult and attempt to convince him from doing.
1/15/2018 11:27:05 AM
The Intouchables was the first time my wife and I went to an Independent Movie theater. We liked it so much that it got us hooked on Independent movies. The movie was so well done you forget about the wheelchair pretty quickly and focus solely on the characters.
1/10/2018 8:14:05 PM
Thai Yang
The intelligent and dark humor depiction of Art, even as a support character, in the based on real-life movie, Music Within, was right on!
1/5/2018 2:43:10 PM

Latest Comments

4/16/2024 | José Díaz
Invaluable resource! ¡Tu guía sobre el uso de GoFundMe para gastos de movilidad ofrece consejos p...

2/18/2024 | Jamie Elliott
I played in a wc hybrid tournament, Mid South, last yr. He is an amazing player and I’m sure he i...

2/8/2024 | Elaine Cook
Great article written by a wonderful Christain man. You're such an inspiration!!!

2/7/2024 | Diana Weaver
I enjoyed reading your article. I'm thankful I had the opportunity to play with you as my pi...

1/10/2024 | Mary Goldberg
Thanks to Tyler for sharing the awesome opportunities! As the MRT Program Director, I'm always ha...

How to get funding for your assistive technology