28 Movies, Books, TV Shows (and More) That Explore Disability Culture
New York Times staff members put their heads together with disability advocates to recommend movies, books, TV shows, dance and art that capture disability experiences.
Xian Horn, a disability advocate and selection committee member for ReelAbilities, a film festival showcasing people with disabilities, recommends these films with the idea in mind that film “can be a mirror in documenting every area of advocacy.
‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ (2019) Zak, a boy with Down syndrome who has no family and lives in a senior facility escapes to pursue his dream of becoming a wrestler. This movie has star power in the likes of Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Shia LaBeouf and Thomas Haden Church. But it really is about the debut of Zack Gottsagen, “a disarming performer who creates a sweet and funny character” as Zak, Glenn Kenny wrote in his review in The New York Times.
‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ (2020) Youth from an upstate New York summer camp called Camp Jened go on to lead the historic 504 Sit-in demonstration as adults. “No matter how fondly you recall your time at sleepaway camp,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote in his review in The Times, “chances are your experiences weren’t as formative as the ones recounted in ‘Crip Camp.’”
‘Off the Rails’ (2016) Darius McCollum’s love of mass transit has made him the subject of newspaper headlines for the many joy rides he has taken on New York City buses and subway trains. But the subtext of this documentary, Neil Genzlinger wrote in The Times, is “a criminal justice system that has no way to deal with an offender like Mr. McCollum, who has Asperger’s syndrome, other than to keep throwing him in prison.”
‘The Drummer and The Keeper’ (2017)
A bipolar drummer and a teenager with Asperger’s make music together in a film that “is airy, funny and at home to optimism,” Donald Clarke wrote in The Irish Times. “But it also remains honest about its subjects.”
A remarkably nuanced 3-D view of JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler), a sarcastic and at times mischievous teenager with cerebral palsy. “That he’s a flawed kid with a flawed family in a reasonably funny sitcom is what makes ‘Speechless’ good, rather than simply worthy,” James Poniewozik wrote in his 2016 review in The Times.
Ryan O’Connell plays Ryan Hayes, who is gay and has cerebral palsy and is navigating his first internship as well as a budding sex life.
Gaelynn Lea A folk artist and disability rights advocate, Lea was the winner of NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest for her original song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun.” She told NPR that it is about “how love might be a struggle now, but that it’s worth hanging on.”
Velvet Crayon The persona of Erik Paluszak, who says his “genre is in a constant state of flux” but can best be described as psychedelic alt rock.
Lachi A dance pop recording artist and performer with a visual impairment whose songs focus on empowerment. “People tend to forget or not notice my disability, which is good because I’m not looking for pity parties,” she told Flame magazine last year.
Tabi A singer-songwriter with muscular dystrophy, Tabi blends R&B, pop, rock, folk, jazz, blues, country and dance. She said on her website that she started singing for fun as a way to exercise her lungs and diaphragm, but her love of music became a career.
‘The Oracle Code’
A graphic novel by Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano reimagines the origin story of DC Comic’s Barbara “Oracle” Gordon as a paraplegic young hacker reluctantly drawn into solving a mystery at her rehab facility.
‘Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century’
A nonfiction anthology of essays edited by the disability activist Alice Wong “gives a glimpse into the rich complexity of the disabled experience,” the publisher, Penguin Random House, said on its website.
‘If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain’
In a memoir slated to be published in September, Erin Clark describes her journey from growing up a young, disabled girl in Northern Ontario to becoming an artist, writer and paraglider living in Spain.
In a memoir to be published this fall, Riva Lehrer explores growing up with spina bifida in the 1960s and ’70s with well-meaning parents whose attempts to “fix” her backfired until she found her own sense of empowerment.
Written and edited by disabled people for disabled people, the magazine says on its website that it looks to “increase representation of sick and disabled people in publishing and the arts, and to challenge the harmful stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability.”
The account bills itself as a space for disabled and chronically ill artists, and its website provides features each month on different artists.
A pottery and clothing designer whose work, according to her website, examines “physical bodily pain, the cost of being disabled in our society, and the associated emotional impact from both.”
Blue puts his self-deprecating wit on display in shows like “Sticky Change” on Amazon Prime Video, and on tour. His confrontational stance with his cerebral palsy reflects a sentiment common among many disabled people: that they should not be defined by disability.
Anner, who has cerebral palsy — “the sexiest of palsies” — muses on life on his YouTube channel. Anner gained fame when he won the reality competition “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” and became the host of the travel show “Rollin’ With Zach.”
Perez, who describes herself on her website as “the woman in a wheelchair, with no feet, who won a treadmill on ‘The Price Is Right,’” jokes about race, dating and life as an amputee.
Eugenie Lee Using virtual reality and video game-related work, Lee recreates life with complex regional pain syndrome, a pain-related chronic illness, in a way others might experience it. She says that persistent pain “can have a devastating effect on both the lives of people living with it and those around them.”
Gupta is a multisensory textile artist whose work “everyone can access through the engagement of all their senses,” including touch, smell, sound and sight.
Christine Sun Kim Kim, who is Deaf, is a sound artist whose work was in the Whitney Biennial last year. She performed in American Sign Language at the Super Bowl — and then wrote about the frustration of having the cameras shift away from her. “Why have a sign language performance that is not accessible to anyone who would like to see it?”
Andy Slater For his digital album “Unseen Reheard,” Slater, who is blind, was inspired by “an obscure weird science theory” that assumes that blind people can hear “transdimensionally” by being in tune with the subharmonics of the universe.
This dance collaborative “creates and performs at the nexus of access, technology, disability, dance, and race.” It was founded in 2016 under the direction and artistic leadership of Alice Sheppard, and is a project-based ensemble of four disabled artists: Sheppard, Jerron Herman, Laurel Lawson and Michael Maag.
This company “disrupts space, dismantles normal, and redefines beauty and virtuosity through innovative performance and discourse,” according to its mission statement.
Sarah Bahr and Katherine McMahan contributed research.