As the Academy Awards declare their winners this weekend, I start my annual plea for inclusion of people with Disabilities in Hollywood. It has been over 30 years since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God. She is the last actress with a recognizable physical disability to win an Oscar for acting. Plenty of actors have won awards for playing people with disabilities, but too rarely does a person with a disability (who make up 20% of our society) get considered for a mainstream role. Matlin will be honored this year at the opening night of the 10th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.
The ReelAbilities Film Festival opens March 8, right after the Academy Awards, and celebrates those great movies that were overlooked by Hollywood. This lineup includes authentic portrayals and responsible representations of people from all walks of life. The festival presents these visions in hopes to change perceptions and engage a wider audience with disabilities. ReelAbilities is also completely accessible and even has audio description for the blind — making this a celebration that everyone can feel welcome to join.
The Academy worked hard to better include minorities and attempted to raise the percentage of women being honored. They have a long way to go but there is a clear rise in diversity in Hollywood. I think this year more than ever the Oscars are also concerned with social justice themes and drives attention to films like the social satire Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Get Out that include statements that raise social awareness. However, hardly a peep has been heard about greater inclusion of people with disabilities.
I believe part of the reason for this stark omission is that Hollywood does not completely know how to look outside the box and appreciate images that are different. Hollywood works as a production machine that is attempting to sell a product to the masses. They often reach for the lowest common denominator and this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy where Hollywood is only supporting the vision they created. There are other visions and stories that go beyond the image that Hollywood brings to the table. Our society is much more complex than that and in many ways we are moving towards a niche driven market where there is something for everyone.
Hollywood may not appreciate films including people with disabilities, but there is a market for this minority. ReelAbilities Film Festival receives over 500 submissions every year and ultimately needs to turn down great films as it does not have enough slots for all the wonderful films. The festival plays in over 30 locations in New York and in over 20 cities across North America. For those who do not fit into Hollywood’s box, there are alternatives to the Oscars. Festivals like ReelAbilities welcome other visions to our society and these should be equally celebrated with the Oscars.