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Focus on Ability Blog

Disabled character or a character who has disability?

Every good character in film is written with challenges they must accommodate or overcome. Their inabilities are as important as their capabilities in order to create dynamic, engaging story arcs. The thing is, as important as these weaknesses are to the story, these characters are rarely defined by them. Superman isn't about a guy who can't handle kryptonite; Harry Potter wears glasses but his story doesn't focus on the challenges of being short sighted.

But can we say the same about characters written with a disability? Often, I'm not so sure. My Left Foot is a terrific film, but is it a story that ever escapes being about cerebral palsy? Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man plays a fascinating character whose disability is also a gift that makes him almost superhuman - but is he ever more than a study in autism?

In contrast, there are a couple of recent examples in television where disability is embedded in a character but never threatens to become their defining characteristic. Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones suffers almost universal derision and disrespect due to his dwarfism, but his identity is built on his intelligence, cunning and decency. The actions he takes are not those of a dwarf but of a good man who must navigate a Machiavellian world. Then there's Breaking Bad, where the gold star for a disabled character goes to Walt Jr, whose central role in the story is entirely conducted without ever specifically referring to his obvious cerebral palsy. His disability is no more than part of a suite of characteristics - in much the same way that his hair colour is, or the clothes he wears.

So here's a little test. This is the plot of Dance Man, one of the film entrants for the 2015 Focus On Ability Festival. A young man attempts to attract the attention of a young woman he likes by standing on his front porch and dancing. Unfortunately, he can't dance and the girl is unimpressed. Luckily, however, the young guy's brother is a dancing wiz and he teaches him to bust some fancy moves. When he next tries his mating dance on the porch, he is a master. Zing! The girl is impressed.

So ... which of these characters is a person with disability? You're right, it's impossible to say. Because it has exactly zero relevance to the story. So, if you haven't seen the film, take a guess, and then check it out using the link below.


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