By Jeff Shannon
It has been 11 years since The Waterdance was released to critical acclaim and box-office obscurity. Independently produced on a tight budget, this engaging rehab-ward drama–starring Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes and William Forsythe as newly-injured paraplegics adjusting to life in wheelchairs–earned just under $2 million in limited release. That’s barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar, but through subsequent exposure on cable television and home video, The Waterdance emerged as the best, most authentic film to depict the emotional and physical realities of paralysis.
Have we progressed since then? Has mainstream Hollywood matured in its depictions of disability, or was The Waterdance merely a promising exception to the stereotypical rule? In surveying the evidence–focusing on the depiction of mobility impairment in mainstream film and television–it’s clear that familiar stereotypes continue to endure. It’s equally evident, however, that Hollywood’s acceptance of disability is running parallel to society in general; as the mass public grows more familiar and comfortable with disabilities of all kinds, that gradual integration is reflected in mainstream entertainment.
Surely The Waterdanceowes its realism to writer and co-director Neal Jimenez, a paraplegic who drew upon his own experiences in making the film, essentially casting Stoltz as his onscreen alter ego. In getting the details of rehab and paralysis just right, Jimenez proved an obvious point: The best way to improve Hollywood’s perception of disability is for more disabled people to break into Hollywood–a difficult task, but hardly impossible. In the meantime, nondisabled filmmakers are showing signs of increased awareness, and creaky stereotypes are giving way to gradual enlightenment.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but with disabled actors in regular roles on television’s Ed and CSI, among others, we’re seeing the gradual emergence of disability as incidental to a character’s role, as opposed to its primary focus. That’s a crucial distinction, because while many disabled roles are still played by nondisabled actors, as Hollywood’s awareness of disability increases, many film and TV producers are pursuing authenticity. Not only are disabled actors being sought for disabled roles, they’re also being considered for roles in which no disability is specified.
“I call it the full-inclusion generation,” say