Film can be a wonderful medium for raising awareness about various issues ranging from racism to genocide to drug addiction. Movies can portray characters in a way that books cannot – truly making the viewer sympathize with characters as though they are real people. With all the limitless possibilities of film, it is extremely frustrating to see a consistent failure to properly represent characters with learning disabilities (LD).
Very often, films devolve into cliché to portray characters; a character with autism will invariably be freakishly good at math and freak out around other people, a character with Tourette’s will curse excessively, one with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will be insufferable at times, but a great detective. Oftentimes, Hollywood will put characters with LD in situations where they are tormented or humiliated, and play these situations as a tasteless joke at a character’s expense. Though I can appreciate dark humor as much as anyone else, I cannot appreciate scenes of cruelty that are simply inserted for shock value. What’s even worse than a mean-spirited joke is an attempt to make the audience pity a character with LD by making them a burden to the hero, like Lenny from John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men.
In the past, women and minorities often existed in films to play sidekicks or comic relief. In film, characters with LD are often given the same treatment – often portrayed as “damsels in distress” in need of saving and hand-holding. Suffice it to say, movies fail to empower people with LD: they don’t show individuals who are capable of being self-sufficient, instead they paint broad caricatures who are dependent on others and are rarely defined beyond their disability.
It is my sincere hope that, soon, filmmakers will realize that LD is a topic that is worth exploring as more than just a “quirk” for a character in a romantic comedy, or something to be brought up once to justify a character’s failings at school or at work. I want to see films that don’t trivialize LD, that treat it as a legitimate source of drama, as something to be struggled with and conquered—not just laughed at and pushed to the wayside. We have plenty of films about overcoming mental illness, why not more about overcoming LD? I also want to see films from actors and directors with LD about LD. Despite all of the talents of “normal” actors, a performance by someone with LD will be much more genuine and believable, and serve as a testament to what people with LD are capable of.
As a person with LD, I know what it’s like to be stereotyped. As a self-proclaimed cinephile, I’ve seen enough films to know when a director is talking down to their audience. Oftentimes, it seems that films oversimplify LD for audiences “enjoyment” rather than confronting it head-on. I ultimately believe that film can be a great form of LD advocacy, but that there must be more attention paid to films that accurately portray LD. Luckily, Hollywood is willing to give people what they want—demand more authenticity in films, and we might just get it. Or better yet: it’s easier and cheaper to make a film now than ever before, so if anyone artistically inclined is reading this, go out and make a movie!