Wednesday, August 24, 2011

UIC professor Carrie Sandahl turns camera on Hollywood images of people with disabilities

UIC press release:

“Rain Man.” “Forrest Gump.” “Wait Until Dark.” “Million Dollar Baby.” What do these movies have in common?

Each is about someone who’s disabled in some way. And none offers any insight into the realities of being disabled.

But maybe these are just bad examples. Are there any films that give a true representation of a person who has a disability?

“The answer is no,” says Carrie Sandahl, who is making a documentary on how Hollywood portrays the disabled.

Her film, “Code of the Freaks,” illustrates a number of “horribly oppressive stereotypes,” said Sandahl, associate professor of disability and human development.

“Blind women are beautiful, defenseless, stalked and need to be saved by men,” she said. See Madeleine Stowe and Aidan Quinn in “Blink.”

“Blind men are sexy and swordfighters or superheroes. They somehow get compensatory skills for their loss of sight.” See Ben Affleck in “Daredevil.”

A section of the documentary called “Cure or Kill” highlights Hollywood’s two favorite ways to solve the problem of disability.

In “Avatar,” a crippled Sam Worthington finds new life inside the body of a big blue alien. In “Million Dollar Baby,” Hilary Swank is paralyzed in the boxing ring and prevails upon her manager, played by Clint Eastwood, to put her out of her misery.

“A plot often serves as what I call ‘a fable for the abled,’” Sandahl said. “It’s a catalyst for a nondisabled person to become a better person through their interaction with a disabled person.”

Thus Tom Cruise is transformed from a selfish jerk into a worthwhile human being by his relationship with his autistic brother, Dustin Hoffman, in “Rain Man.”

“Disabled characters are used for symbolic purposes,” Sandahl said. When the wheelchair-using protagonist of “Born on the Fourth of July” — another Cruise role — becomes an antiwar activist, “it represents how the nation came to grips with the [Vietnam] war.”

But the disabled aren’t shown as flesh-and-blood members of society. As the “Code of the Freaks” blog puts it: “Characters with disabilities are not presented as three-dimensional people; rather, the disability itself is the character.”

Hollywood’s focus is seldom on the issues faced by the disabled: “the abysmal employment rate, the lack of health care, the fact that so many are incarcerated in nursing homes,” she said.

“Disability is everywhere in films, but there are very few disabled actors [the deaf actress Marlee Matlin being a notable exception],” Sandahl said.

No problem, because able-bodied actors are eager to take these “coveted” roles, she said.

“The stars are nominated for Oscars inordinately, and often win. We all knew ‘The King’s Speech’ was going to win.”

“Code of the Freaks” will include footage from “salons” where disabled and nondisabled audiences react to film clips. The next one, on images of disabled African American men, is from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington St.

Sandahl runs the salons with Susan Nussbaum, a playwright and actor; they are writing the documentary together. Sandahl is in charge of research and advises on editing.

Working with them are Salome Chasnoff, executive director of Beyondmedia Education, Laurie Little of Luminist Films and Aly Patsavas, a Ph.D. student in disability studies.

Sandahl estimates it will take another two years to finish the project. They are still raising funds for the film.

Born with sacral agenesis, which causes mobility impairment and short stature, Sandahl walks with canes over short distances and otherwise uses a wheelchair.

She was raised in Hood River, Ore. She majored in theater at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both in theater studies.

She taught at Florida State University in Tallahassee for 11 years. But she often came to Chicago for disability art and culture events. With Carol Gill, associate professor of disability and human development at UIC, she did a National Endowment for the Arts-funded study of barriers and facilitators of careers in the arts for people with disabilities.

“I got to know the faculty and students here,” she said. “Then there was an opening [in 2009], and it was a match.”
She established an “administrative home” at UIC for the Chicago Bodies of Work festival of disability arts and culture, last held in 2006 and planned again for 2013.

Sandahl is married to Randal Svea, a web programmer, and they have two children, Gregory, 9, and Audrey, 3. They live in Oak Park.

“I love going to the theater and spending time with my kids,” she said.

Sandahl also loves her work.

“Sometimes I don’t believe I’m getting paid for what I do,” she said, “because I’m having so much fun.”