Monday, February 25, 2008

Disability moments at the Oscars

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat blog

The 80th Academy Awards got me thinking about the few "real" disability moments at the Oscars. (There are lots of moments for non-disabled actors receiving an Oscar for "playing disabled" but I rarely count those.)

1. Hearing impaired actress Marlee Matlin wins Best Actress for her debut film performance in "Children of a Lesser God" in 1987. She caused controversy in the Deaf community by signing and speaking, and even more controversy in 1988 when she presented the best actor award and spoke even more. Here's a somewhat bizarre YouTube video of her acceptance and presentation that makes it sound like she learned to speak much better between 1987 and 1988, which is probably incorrect.

2. "King Gimp" wins for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 2000. Dan Keplinger, the subject of the documentary about a young man with cerebral palsy who strives to become an artist, jumps from his wheelchair in excitement when the win is announced. (Full disclosure: Dan is a former student of mine.) Many people are concerned that he is injured, but all of us who know him realize he is jumping for joy. Unfortunately, the stage is not wheelchair accessible and Dan can't go up with directors, Susan Hadary and William Whiteford, even though he wrote the script for the documentary. I realize that the subjects of documentaries rarely go up on stage, but wouldn't it be great if they had an accessible stage! An update on Dan's story: He received in MFA in Art at Towson University in 2007. Way to go, Dan! (You can see a clip of King Gimp in this CNN story.) You can purchase "King Gimp" or book Dan as a speaker. He also appeared in an excellent Cingular ad during the Super Bowl in 2001.

3. Christopher Reeve appears in 1996, a year after his riding accident that left him a quadriplegic. According to the NY Times, he "moved an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about social issues." I am not into Christopher Reeve idolatry (that's a blog post for another day), but as I remember it, when he flew west to appear at the Academy Awards, lots of Hollywood types were educated about the difficult transportation issues for someone who is quadriplegic and about accessibility issues for the Academy Awards venue. And making movers and shakers aware of those issues is always a good thing.

4. Louise Fletcher wins 1975 Best Actress for "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and thanks her deaf parents in sign language during her acceptance speech. Both her parents were deaf from birth and she was raised bilingual, learning American Sign Language from her parents and learning to speak from her aunt, according to an article by Deaf Friends International. She was apparently the first person to sign at the Oscars.

5. "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Times of Mark O'Brien" wins the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). O'Brien, who lived in an iron lung, was a poet, journalist and advocate of the independent living movement for people with disabilities. He died in 1999. Jessica Yu directed the documentary; she won the 1995 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary about architect Maya Lin.

6. "Murderball," about quad rugby, is nominated for the 2005 Best Documentary Feature. But it was the year of the penguins, so "The March of the Penguins" won. But just being nominated helped it receive some much deserved publicity. It did win the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and one of its "stars," Mark Zupan, went on to be in an ad for Reebok.

7. "Educating Peter" receives the 1992 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short subject). The film by producer/director Gerardine Wurzburg followed a boy with Down syndrome through his third grade year in a regular class in his Virginia elementary school. She followed it up with "Graduating Peter," which appeared on HBO in 2003.

8. Gerardine Wurzburg produced "Autism is a World," which is nominated for Best Documentary (Short subject) in 2004. This documentary follows Sue, who has autism, as she explains what she feels and what her life is like. Initially labeled as mentally retarded, Sue starts using facilitated communication at age 13, becomes a top student, and attends college to study Latin American history.

9. "Helen Keller in Her Story" (also called "The Unconquered") wins 1955 Best Documentary Feature. It is a biographical documentary of Keller, which includes interviews with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Martha Graham. I have seen this documentary and it is a fantastic document of her every day life.

10. "Best Boy" takes home the 1979 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It chronicles the life of filmmaker Ira Wohl's cousin, Philly Wohl, an intellectually disabled 52-year-old, who learns the skills he needs to live on his own as his parents become too elderly to care for him.

11. "Sound and Fury" nominated as 2000 Best Documentary Feature. The documentary focuses on two brothers, one hearing and one deaf, who have to make decisions about about cochlear implants for their children. In 2006, "Sound and Fury" producer/director Josh Aronson completed a new film "Sound and Fury: Six Years Later," which explores family members lives after they get cochlear implants.