Screen and stage treatments of disability often miss the mark, critic says

A new wave of plays and movies on the subject of disability has irked some critics, who say the underlying message is often that disabilities hold you back from living a full life.

'We want to see ourselves represented the way that we are,' Toronto film critic says

Amandla Stenberg plays the main character, Maddy, in the film Everything, Everything, about a young woman with an immunodeficiency disease who can't leave her home. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

A new wave of plays and movies on the subject of disability has irked some critics, who say the underlying message is often that disabilities hold you back from living a full life. 

One target of criticism is the film Everything, Everything, based on Nicola Yoon's teen novel about a girl who falls in love, but can't leave her home because she has an immunodeficiency disease. 

The film — hitting theatres May 19 — purportedly examines what it's like to live with a genetic disorder, but drops the disability narrative completely by the end. Critics are blasting the movie as another unrealistic depiction of living with a disease or disability and using it only as a plot device. 

According to Yoon, the story is about love. 

"I think Maddy is very happy in the book before she meets Olly," Yoon told CBC News. "I think the point is love changes everything."

"The book is not about a disease," said Stella Meghie, the Canadian director of Everything, Everything.

Everything, Everything author Nicola Yoon says her novel is all about love and what one would risk to have it. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

"Maddie is very content in the book and the greater themes of love and what you would risk for love are paramount over that."

Similar criticisms were directed at the 2016 film Me Before You — also based on a novel — which ends with a main character choosing death over living with a disability.

'We try to tell it sensitively'

Meanwhile, The Boy in the Moon, a new play debuting in Toronto, has taken a different approach by discussing, but not explicitly portraying, the disability on which the story revolves. 

Actors appear in a scene from the new play The Boy in the Moon. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

Adapted from Ian Brown's book of the same name, the production recounts his struggle to raise his son, Walker, who has the rare disorder cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome. Brown bluntly walks readers through his own journey, questioning the worth and meaning of a life like Walker's.

The Boy in the Moon, a book by Toronto writer Ian Brown about his son, has inspired the new play. (Random House Canada)

"The play invites the audience into that journey as well," said stage director Chris Abraham.

"It means asking some candid questions about personhood, about knowability, about the soul inside an individual that is very hard to access. And that does make it a sensitive story to tell and we try to tell it sensitively."

The play, which officially opened May 11, doesn't include Walker as a character.

"There was no satisfying or correct way to show Walker, to have Walker represented by an able-bodied actor," Abraham said. 

'You don't simply cure your disability'

Neither approach is satisfactory, according to Toronto film critic Angelo Muredda.

"I think disabled people are used to seeing these sort of able-bodied, disabled narratives that are about disability as this kind of tragic condition that keeps you from living a real life, that you have to get past."

That trend is a dangerous misrepresentation of what it's like to live with a disability, he said.

"You don't turn off your disability, you don't simply cure your disability or transcend your disability.… It's something that you live with every day."

Toronto film critic Angelo Muredda says films would be better off leaving disability out of the story rather than misrepresenting it. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

The answer, Muredda said, lies in allowing people with disabilities to tell their own stories.

"We want to see ourselves represented the way that we are...And actually see our lived experiences in books and on screen."

Festival spotlights disabled characters, filmmakers

The ReelAbilities Film Festival is a new event that aims to showcase films about characters with disabilities and promote films made by people with disabilities. 

An offshoot of a New York festival, it's being held in Toronto this week for its second year. 

For this edition, the festival has added workshops to teach filmmakers how to make their films more accessible for the hearing impaired. Organizers are hoping to expand the festival into more Canadian cities in the coming years.

"It's really important that filmmakers with disabilities are telling their own stories and finding platforms to share their own experiences," said ReelAbilities artistic director Liviya Mendelsohn.

Guests arrive for the start of the 2017 ReelAbilities Film Festival in Toronto. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

About the Author

Stephanie vanKampen


Stephanie vanKampen is a videojournalist with the CBC News Arts & Entertainment Unit in Toronto. Send story ideas to stephanie.vankampen @cbc.ca