In a 2013 report, characters with a disability only accounted for 1 percent of the television population, when in reality, people with disabilities make up 19 percent of the US population, or around 56 million people. While the representation is still a long way from being representative of the true population, there are still quality television programs and films that depict special needs honestly.
What’s it About?: The story of a family as they deal with the challenges of raising a son with cerebral palsy.
Why It’s Worth Watching: While Speechless treats cerebral palsy with an informed voice, it doesn’t do so with a melodramatic tone. In fact, Speechless is actually a comedy. Created by Scott Silveri, Speechless pulls from his childhood experiences of watching his parents care for his brother, who has cerebral palsy.
In an industry in which people with special needs are underrepresented, Speechless is one of the few television shows out there that attempts to give them a voice, pun-intended. Here are some of the newest HD movies that are also worth watching.
What’s it About?: NBC drama about the ups and downs of three generations of the Braverman family.
Why It’s Worth Watching: A stalwart in NBC’s programming schedule for six seasons, Parenthood never shied away from tackling tough issues that most families could relate to. Throughout the run, they tackled everything from teenage pregnancy to breast cancer to PTSD, but one of the longest-running storylines in the show was young Max growing up and coming to terms with being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Showrunner Jason Katim based Max’s storyline, and the storyline of his parents Kristina and Adam, on his own experiences of being a parent of a child diagnosed with Asperger’s. Katim’s autobiographical perspective and young actor Max Burkholder’s commitment to the role makes Parenthood a raw and honest look at an often-misunderstood special need.
What’s it About?: A documentary chronicling six months in the lives of five children on the autism spectrum, as they write, rehearse, and perform and original stage musical.
Why It’s Worth Watching: A lot of documentaries focused on autism tend to focus on the experiences of the parents and what it is like raising a child with autism. While the parents are involved in this film (including rock and roll guitarist Stephen Stills), the focus of this documentary is primarily the children. Moving and inspiring, this film can make you tear at the struggles of both the children and the parents, but can also fill your heart with happiness as you see the children overcome some of the challenges they are faced with.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
What’s it About?: After his father dies, Gilbert Grape is forced to take care of his morbidly obese mother and his special needs brother, while trying to make a life of his own.
Why It’s Worth Watching: Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Arnie, Gilbert’s autistic brother. In the film, Arnie is an independent person: a member of the community and a fixture in his own home. In comparison to Rain Man, a film made around the same time, Arnie is not institutionalized and is welcomed and loved in his own community.
Hollywood still has a long way to go to fully represent the special needs population. Film and television, however, have come a long way in depicting those with special needs like autism with accuracy and honesty.