‘Does disability ever represent anything other than a negative image?’1

The media particularly films, a powerful agent of socialization, is responsible for changing or reinforcing the perspectives of society to various issues of social concern. Analysing and understanding cultural and cinematic representation of the various marginalized groups  provides an opportunity  to recognize and debunk the trends, nuances and the stereotypes constructed in them. Shifts in social attitudes towards these groups can to a large extent be gauged from such studies notwithstanding the fact that cinema often fails to represent the social reality as it exists particularly with respect to disability. There remains a tendency to depict disability in stereotypical ways, what can be termed as ‘disabling cinema’2

However, as has been propounded by various disability scholars, disability is more than merely a physical impairment; it is, indeed, a social construction. The stigma that is attached to being disabled can be either ameliorated or reinforced by cinematic representation of disability.

In this paper, the researcher aims to find out to what extent, if at all, has the social reality of the disabled been depicted in the films and to what extent has the portrayal of disability in films affected the social reality.

The films that have been used for the writing this paper are both English and vernacular, therefore the researcher has had to resort to translation in several cases. The researcher has had to use reviews and information from other sources for a lot of films which the researcher herself could not watch. The researcher shall focus on certain key issues like medicalization of disability and institutionalisation of the disabled, disability and sexuality and the relationship between the parent and the child when any one of them is affected by disability. The researcher seeks to answer the following questions with particular references to the abovementioned zones of research :

1. Is depiction of disability in  cinema stereotypical? Has disability been portrayed right from the advent of cinema? If  has been, has there been any change in the way disability is portrayed in cinema right from the time of its inception to modern day cinema?

2. To what extent is the cinematic representation of disability reflecting the social reality as it exists?

3. Does disability depiction in the movies simply perpetrate absurd ideas for the purpose of commercial gain or is there a valid explanation for the way disability is depicted in the movies?

For the purpose of answering these questions, the researcher has used the method of content analysis .

Medicalization of disability and institutionalization

Disability has traditionally been regarded as some kind of permanent sickness. The notion of sickness is intrinsically linked to the concept of medicalization. The media has also partaken in this medicalization of disability as any character who is disabled has always been reduced to some object who either needs regular intake of medicine to keep him or her ‘normal’ or ‘fit enough’ to live in society or has been send to institutions.

For instance, Khuku,3 a young woman, suffering from schizophrenia, repeatedly says that she has some kind of sickness associated with the brain and hence she can’t do a number of things like set the right channel on the radio . She behaves ‘abnormally’ and slaps her young nephew violently, when he drops a plate of food. Her sudden violent outburst was attributed , by her ‘very understanding’ sister-in-law, Paromita, to the fact that she was not given her daily dose of medicine. Therefore it is not her fault if she behaves abnormally!

Apparently, being compassionate towards the mentally disabled person, the movie maker subconsciously perpetrates the idea that the disabled cannot be expected to behave ‘normally’ without the aid of the medical world.4

In the same film, later, when Khuku starts unclothing herself during the last ceremonies of her mothers funeral, her brother says that some steps must be taken as far as Khuku is concerned. The audience is left wondering whether he was hinting at institutionalising Khuku. Khuku, on the other hand, is pacified when she meets her loving boudi (sister-in –law) Paromita.

This movie highlights the positive aspects of institutions as Paromita’s disabled son, Bablu, is left in the care of a spastic society where disability is normal and  able-bodiness is abnormal. There, Bablu is not ridiculed because of his inability to walk. Children there are encouraged to walk, learn poetry, play cricket, etc. Paromita’s mother-in-law, once, while returning from this spastic society comments on how the disabled also have feelings, enthusiasm to partake in different activities and the urge to live just like the non-disabled.  The implication being- these  institutions help the disabled individual to develop their faculties and live among others like them.5

However, the reality of institutionalisation is not always so picture perfect. Anne Mc’Donald,a woman born with cerebral palsy, writes :

 ‘To be imprisoned inside one’s own body is dreadful. To be confined to an institution for the profoundly retarded does not crush you in the same way. It just removes all hope.

I went to St. Nicholas Hospital when I was three. The hospital was the state garbage bin. Very young children are taken into permanent care , regardless of their intelligence. If they were disfigured, distorted or disturbed then the world would not have to see  or acknowledge them. You knew that you have failed to live up to the standard expected of babies. You were expected to die.

Never seeing normal children , we were not sure what they were like. Where did we fall short?In your ugly body, it seemed impossible that there could be a mind. Vital signs show that your title was ‘human’ but this does not entitle you to live like other normal children. You were totally outside the boundary which delineated the human race.’6

Thus the disabled are institutionalised often because the non-disabled section of the society are unable to acknowledge the existence of something that is different and deformed probably because it makes them confront their fear of how they (human beings) have very little control over their bodies and probably ultimately the fear that all human beings shall have to face death sooner or later. In order to grapple with this fear, there is a tendency to dehumanise the disabled. This is done primarily by stripping them of their privacy and dignity. Thus in the Dancing in the dark, the lead character, supposedly suffering from acute depression7 is institutionalized. She is asked to undress in the presence of other people as she is perceived to be a threat to herself. Further she is kept in Suicide watch when actually she has no intention, whatsoever, of attempting suicide. She is forced to take pills that might affect her pregnancy and her repeated pleas to the contrary are consistently ignored. In the first place her wish against being put into a ‘loony bin’ is ignored, by none other , than her husband , supposedly for her own good. That the husband shirks to identify her as his wife and a statement in the film itself-”there is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness”, seems to indicate the cause of institutionalisation to be more than just for her own good.

In Black , Mitchell, a deaf and blind girl is repeatedly sought to be institutionalised by her father because she might just do something that the entire family might  have to suffer for. Thus the primary reasons for institutionalising the disabled seems to be two fold- the inability of the non-disabled to acknowledge the presence of humans who are deformed or different and hence trapped within their own body8 and that they remind the ‘normal’ human beings that they are not in control of their bodies and may have to face this fate or death sooner or later. Thus in order to remain in control, they send them to the institutions which is a place that shall cure them with the aid of the medical fraternity or if not cure them , it shall at least segregate them from the rest of the society, in a place for the ‘socially dead’. Thus,in the film Anjali, Anjali’s father says that Anjali was ‘born dead’ to his wife, when actually he had institutionalised his brain-damaged daughter. On the other hand , the disabled are institutionalised in order to get rid of the stigma that not only the disabled individual, but his family also has to face. This is depicted in Paromitar ek din, where Bablu’s father forbids  Paromita to let anyone into the room where Bablu stayed, as he had come to hate the pity that people associate with the disabled and would rather have his son being called dead than disabled. What is noticeable, is that the disability has to be exterminated either by curing or by death (and in yet other films , by love). The society, and hence cinema, cannot allow disability or deviance to exist. Yet other movies show that the disabled need to stay with people of their kind thus highlighting the Us versus Them divide.(Things made by Us , written over the articles made by the children in the spastic society–Paromitar Ek Din.)

Largely, an explanation of such depiction can be sought in Parsonian understanding of disability. Parsons has provided a two fold understanding of disability-That of the assumption of the ‘sick role’ and that of social deviance. At the onset of illness the disabled individual is expected to assume the ‘sick role’. Generally, considered unaccountable for their predicament they are relieved of all normal expectations and are not expected to recover on their own volition. They are therefore supposed to be completely dependent on the medical community which is vested with the responsibility of returning them to normality. In this model, the ill (or in this context, the Disabled) are to consider their present situation as’ abhorrent and undesirable’9 and are expected to seek the help of the professional and medical experts for restoring them to their former status. Also there is an impairment model  where the ‘impaired role’ is ascribed to someone who does not have to meet with the first functional pre-requisite of the sick role –that of getting well as soon as possible.10 However, this would require a “loss of the full human status’11 and some kind of ‘second class citizenship’12, which can be seen in the case of institutionalisation.

Thus it is very evident that the medicalization of disability and the rampant  institutionalisation that is shown in films is very much the position of the real world today.  It is interesting that while some films promote the cause of institutionalisation (Paromitar ek din) of the disabled, yet others condemn it. (Dancing in the Dark). Probably, it is because if the fact the reality is complex with the Us versus Them divide, the fears, the desire for recovery , the need for staying among  similar people who will appreciate their needs and the dehumanisation in these very institutions. The films do reflect the social reality perhaps at the cost of the reality of the disabled as disability is excessively medicalized and institutionalisation becomes the norm.

Are the disabled sexually ‘normal’?

‘Let’s go somewhere and do it”

When asked  what would he say to a beautiful girl when he met her for the first time , one of the many deaf students in the Children of a lesser god says this.

”Have you ever been with a girl , Forrest?”-Jenny

”I sat next to them all the time in college.”-Forrest.

Subsequent to this , Forrest  moved away from Jenny, when she tried to initiate the process of love making, in spite of the fact that he was always in love with Jenny.13

The above two situations adequately sums up the way sexuality of the disabled is depicted in films. As Murphy puts it-”the sexual problems of the disabled are aggravated by a widespread view that they are malignantly sexual, like libidinous dwarfs, or more commonly completely asexual.”14

In Sati, the lead character, a disabled woman, is systematically raped by a man. But, being deprived of any kind of sexual intercourse she comes to enjoy this. Later, she is ostracized , when she is found to be pregnant.

In Paromitar ek din, Khuku’s mother repeatedly told her that she will never be married, nor will she be a mother. Khuku is rebuked simply because, she harbours dreams of being married and becoming a mother like any other adult woman. She is completely asexualized just because of her mental illness, by, none other than her own mother.

In another scene , Khuku says how she loves holding and touching her mother because her mother is very pretty,  very soft and that it was not fair that only her father would hug her mother. That she says all this to her mother’s former lover and finally questions him as to how even he would love to touch her adds a tinge of ‘perversion’ and a sexual tinge to Khuku’s apparently innocent banter. Thus, in the same film, she is explicitly asexualized and implicitly attributed the character of perversion.

Two welcome exceptions to such stereotypical depiction are Black and Children of a lesser god . In the former , the younger sister of Mitchell, gets married before her and on the day of the engagement she, quite insensitively, says that, probably, Mitchell shall never fall in love. She, too, thus asexualized her blind and deaf sister. However, Mitchell does fall in love. She falls in love with her teacher who is her friend , philosopher and guide, the only man she had known. She asks him to kiss her once. He does.

In this film, at least this has been acknowledged that even a disabled person has some healthy, normal sexual needs. However, probably, keeping in mind the sensibilities of the audience , the film goes no further. The teacher thinks he has failed in his endeavour and abdicates her. Mitchell is left wondering whether she had asked too much from life. Thus, different as this film is, it fails to show that the disabled also have a right to a healthy sexual life.

On the other hand, in Children of a lesser god, Sarah, a twenty five year old deaf woman is shown to have a normal sexual relationship with her partner(James, who is non-disabled.). However, initially she thought that James wanted to interact with her only because he wanted to have sex with a poor deaf woman, who, invariably, must be a virgin and would be willing to ‘spread her legs’ at the slightest instance. She therefore backs off. However, once she learns that James actually loves her, she does have a healthy physical as well as emotional relationship with him, at least , for sometime.

However, such exceptions are aberrations in the world of cinema. The general trend, largely a reflection of societal belief, has always been in extremes-either completely asexual or perverts.

This can be explained to a certain extent by taking recourse to Freudian understanding of sexuality. According to Freud’s libido theory, there are a number of psychosexual stages, namely, the oral, the anal , the phallic and the genital. Normality according to Freud is a result of passing through each of these stages at the right time and in sequence. Thus an infant, who due to some kind of deformity is unable to pass through all these stages in sequence shall not be normal and shall consequently be called a pervert.15 This explains , to a large extent as to why the disabled are sometimes thought to be perverts.

While, this may explain the situation as far as people with congenital disability are concerned , it fails to explain the sexuality of those who have acquired disability at a later stage in life. This can be explained with reference to some real life incidents.

Fred , a man of forty was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and progressively, he was losing muscle control in various parts of his body. Fred went in for therapy and in his first session he said out aloud, ‘I need to digress, it is about sex, I am impotent , I can’t have sex.’ 16 It took some moments for the psychotherapist to realise that not being able to have sex is one of the major factors that remind him of his disability, of his failure to be complete human being, a complete man. It is not as if he is a pervert, to be bothered only about sex when he can’t even walk properly, it is just that sex is a major part of being identified as a complete human being and not being able to have sex, reduces them to something subhuman.

Also, in the case of disabled individuals it must be remembered that even if they have imperfect bodies they do have a mature mind. Hence a deaf boy is quite capable of understanding the concepts of sex.17 However, in institutions their natural desires are suppressed to such an extent  that they are unable to voice their opinion about this issue. Consequently, seemingly asexual, once given a chance they behave in a way that the broader society classifies as perversion.

Another area that needs to be discussed is the sexual relationship between a disabled and a non-disabled individual. This is depicted with amazing sensitivity in the Children of a lesser god where Sarah (deaf) and James fall in love. They have a very happy relationship. However, Sarah, backs off whenever James tries to teach her to speak, that is, eliminate her perceived disability to a large extent. In their most private and intimate moments, James , quite unconsciously, asks her to call out his name. Sarah perceived this to be a conscious effort of making her speak and moves away from James. Perhaps, this can be explained by the fact that the ‘attempts by non-disabled individuals to eliminate their perceived imperfections may impair the disabled persons already fragile sense of belonging and further inhibit the possibility of intimacy.’18 It is probably because of this, that, at times, Sarah is jealous of people like Marian, a deaf woman who has a deaf partner.

It must also be noted that Sarah had a sexually prolific life when she was young because that was the only way , boys would give her the ‘respect’ that she deserved by virtue of being a woman, in spite of being deaf. For the first time, any film, albeit, implicitly, attributes the cause of  overt sexual urges to social construction and not to biological determinism.

The disabled are not necessarily asexual or perverts. They are just like the able-bodied sections of the society with ‘normal’ sexual desires and fears and if they do behave like perverts or asexual beings it is not because of their disability but because of the society in which they live. This is what has been beautifully depicted in My Left Foot Where the disabled character confronts the women he loves about their fears of disability. While cinema depicts the sexuality of the disabled in its extreme forms, films like Children of a lesser god are more than welcome so as to make the people realise that if the disabled are indeed asexual or perverts in reality, then it is the reality of the society in which they live or from which they are segregated (in case of institutionalisation) that has led them to be like that.

Parent-child relationship in the backdrop of disability

1. Chhitra, pregnant, asks her son and daughter whether they want a brother or a sister. Her daughter and son reply saying that they want a sister named  Anjali. Chhitra delivers  the child but when she asks her husband to bring her new-born child to her, Shekhar says  her daughter was born dead.

Much later when Chhitra discovers that  her daughter was indeed alive, she enquires as to why she was told that Anjali was dead , Shekhar replied that she would not have been able to tolerate the sight of a daughter who was suffering from brain damage.

2. Sarah’s mother admits in front of  her,  that she hated her because Sarah’s father was progressively getting alienated from her as she had given birth to a child who was deaf.19

3. When Paromita had her first child , everybody in the family was very excited. Later it was discovered that he was spastic.20

4. When Paromita’s husband asks her to think of a second child, she asks him whether he would be able to bear it if another disabled child was born to them.21

5. Paromita’s husband forbids her to let anyone to come into the room where Bablu, their son stayed as he thought  they made fun of Bablu, them and also offered fake sympathy which he despises. He asks her to say that Bablu is dead in response to any enquiry about him.

6. Paromita’s husband  blames her for giving birth to a disabled child and says that the disability of the child must be due to some sort of genetically transmitted disease that Paromita must be a carrier of.

The above situations almost comprehensively, sum up the complexities in the relationships between a disabled child and his non-disabled parents.

To a large extent films have reflected the diverse reactions that parents have to the birth of a disabled child or the acquiring of a disability by the child in the infant stage.

Let us now examine as to why the parents react in this particular manner.

When a woman is pregnant she has all normal expectations of the child in her womb. As evident in situation (1) and situation (2), the family speculates as to the sex of the child concerned, its name and has a lot of expectations as to how the child will become an ideal part of the family or the group. Thus, when a child who is different from the one expected, it comes as a shock , mainly to the parents as well as to the family. As a result, the reaction of the parents and the family are the reactions to the unexpected as it reminds us of the limited control that we have on even something that is as personal an affair as pregnancy.

The birth of a disabled child is often conceived to be a tragedy (. Disability is considered to be deviance, it is thought to be a threat to the predictability and stability existing in the system. The explanation to this is often based on the ‘crime and punishment principle’ 22 The method as to how the sinner is going to be punished varies from culture to culture. ‘The successful sinner shall be punished in his descendant’23- this belief flows from the story of Eve having committed the original sin. A reflection of this mentality  can be found in situation 6. where the mother is held responsible for giving birth to a disabled child. On the other hand, in some societies it is believed that the child being a separate individual is responsible for his own fate . Thus , when in Anjali, Chhitra asks her husband after seeing many mentally handicapped children in an institution, that why are the children made to suffer in spite of the fact they have not committed any sin, she betrays her belief that disability is invariably the result of or the punishment for some kind of Sin.

At times, however, the parents refuse to acknowledge that the disabled child is a human being in the first place, thus trying to get rid of their guilt of institutionalising the child. Thus references like ”when parents treat their children like animals….”24 bear a special significance.

The parent, sometimes to avoid social stigma , fake sympathy(situation 5) and yet others being unable to deal with the alienation and accusation on the part of the other family members, starts hating the child and wants to institutionalise it. At this juncture, it must be noted the parents often refer to their disabled child being dead, thus making it clear that they have a clear desire to get rid of the child, but unable to do so, they put them in institutions where the disabled child spends the time between his social death and biological death.25

However, at times, feeling responsible for the fate of the child, leads to a much more caring attitude towards the child. This too has been depicted in Paromitar ek din where Paromita takes care of her disabled child in spite of him being spastic and institutionalises him only when she sees that the institution would be better for his all-round development. At the same time, it might so happen that while the mother is taking care of her child, the continuous demand on her time due to this may take a toll on her and make her resent the child. This was also depicted, interestingly, in the same movie, Paromitar ek din, where Khuku’s mother says how she has spend all her life taking care of her schizophrenic daughter. Thus, the reaction to the birth of a disabled child varies amongst parents for various and complex reasons and cinema has depicted this complicity and to a large extent, it has done so successfully.

On the other hand, the relationship of the disabled parent with his/her child has also been depicted in cinema. At times, the disabled parent tends to impose their wishes on the non-disabled child as depicted in Koshish and Khamoshi.26 On the other hand, the disabled parent also has to struggle to maintain her/his right of their child. For instance, in I am Sam, the lead male character who is mentally disabled, had to fight a case  so as to retain custody of his child!

Cinema has indeed captured some of the most complex yet real issues and tensions that exist in the relationship between a child and the parent when at least one of them is disabled


Disability has continued to be the subject matter of cinema since time immemorial. While there has been a definite shift in the way  disability has been depicted from the late 1800s to the twenty first century, many researchers think that there is along way to go. For instance, in 1898, there was a film The Fake Beggar by Thomas Edison. The film showed that there was a beggar who pretended to be blind and this was discovered by a policeman when the beggar bends down to pick up a coin. The policeman gives chase and the film ends there. In the early 1900’s, the trend of depicting the disabled either as comical idiots (Don’t pull my leg,  See no evil, hear no evil  )27 or villains continued. Later there was a remarkable departure, at least in Hollywood movies where a lot of disabled veterans were portrayed in the backdrop of the World War II. Another form of depiction that has persisted through the ages is that of the ‘sweet innocents’28. Also, in many cases, the disability has been acquired later and is eliminated before the film comes to an end, not to mention the ones who overcome their disability and inspire others or are vested with some extraordinary ability.29 What is noticeable is that all of these have been objected to by some section of the society and by some generation or other. Even well-intended depictions have been touted as negative and affecting detrimentally the interests of the disabled in society. It is the constant complaint of some disability theorists that these depictions do not depict the complex reality of the disabled but lead the non-disabled sections of the society to believe and hold on to the myths that they cherish.

However, it must be remembered that the filmmakers have some constraints and the socio-economic and political factors are key factors in determining the kind of stereotypes  that reflect the particular cultural images.30 For instance, as already mentioned, in the backdrop of the second World War and later the Vietnam War, there were a lot of films being made that had disabled veterans as their lead characters(The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July). However, many of the directors who dared to make these films were made subject to the ‘Mc’Carthy witch hunts’, which when combined with the national fear of the Cold War(difference) meant that the images of impairment soon reverted back to being of a more ’freakish’ nature.31

Moreover, as must be clear from the preceding chapters, many of the films did go outside the set patterns and depicted with surprising sensitivity, the complexity of the reality in which the disabled live their lives. Moreover, “what one generation of interpreters view as ‘humane’ can  be challenged by the next, and so on and so forth.This is particularly true with respect to disability where even ‘well-meaning’ representations result in violent justifications.”32

Thus the cinematic representation of disability has to a large extent been a reflection of the prevailing conditions in society as well as the beliefs of the non-disabled section of the society about the ‘unknown and mystifying’ world of the disabled and has therefore been stereotypical, reflecting the historical and social conditions of the times. However, there have been promising exceptions to these stereotypes and these prove that the film industry can, if it wants to, bring to the forefront the reality of the disabled but till then it would serve the society well if it remembered that films are indeed meant for entertainment and therefore, invariably are a mixture of fact and fiction and the audience must be responsible enough to separate one from the other.


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Movies: Anjali., Mani Ratnam,1990.

Black, Sanjay Leela Bansali,1996.

Children of a lesser god, Randa Haines,1986.

Dancing in the Dark.

Forrest Gump,Robert Zemeckis,1994

Paromitar ek din,Aparna Sen,2000.

Sparsh, Sai Paranjpe,1984.