How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability - And Why it Matters For You

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability - And Why it Matters For You

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability - And Why it Matters For You

You see excitement sparking in the producer’s eyes. They tell you your concept is unique, highly marketable, and fills a void in a profitable genre…

Then the big question comes - the most important question you get asked in any pitch - “why are YOU the one to tell this story?”

You respond, “I chose to write this paranoid-spy-thriller as my vehicle to immerse an audience in the experience of what it’s like living with an anxiety disorder, like my own CPTSD.”

They had been leaning in up till the last few words. Now... silence stretches. You can almost see frost forming on your zoom window - the room has gone cold.

*Me in the pitch meeting:*

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You

Did you know: 92-98% of those with PTSD and CPTSD are non-military *1*

Industry professionals like the one I pitched above don’t think of themselves as ableist. They would never admit to not being disability-friendly. On the contrary, like this producer, many agents/managers/producers/execs publicly promote themselves as passionate about inclusivity and diversity. They’re only trying to help when they give you the note “you might get better reception if you don’t mention your disability.”

Despite accounting for 26% of the population *2* people with disabilities have the least representation in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera.


Six years ago I was mostly bedridden with autoimmune and neurological conditions. I was in the top 15% of severity with my autoimmune disease and told I might not live past 15 more years. On top of that I am neurodivergent with ADHD and CPTSD.

Imagine a good day being every inch of your body at a pain level of 8 with several areas at a pain level 10. Now imagine having been like that for fifteen years, with every year getting worse. Imagine all of your conditions being “invisible illnesses,” appearing to everyone around you as being healthy and fit. Imagine friends and family not believing you are sick or the severity of your condition. All of this would influence who you are, how you see yourself, how you see the world. It would shape the very foundations of your artistic voice.

“But don’t tell anyone about your disability…”

Six years ago I started an intensive treatment that transformed my life. Nine months of twice-weekly four-hour treatments enabled me to start full-time work again - as a YouTube influencer at Flite Test where I served as the channel manager until 2020.

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You

Me at Work

Six years after starting treatment, I’m down to one session every other week plus working on myself an hour a day. I am thrilled to say that all of my past symptoms are dramatically reduced, including my ADHD and CPTSD. With my continued support system and ongoing treatment, the management of my symptoms continues to improve.

Unfortunately, in pitches, there’s not always the opportunity to tell that much of my story. And why should I have to? Why do I have to “overcome” my disabilities to have a seat at the table? What about people with disabilities where there is no “improvement of symptoms?” Should any of them be excluded? Should any of us?

Did you know: Many autoimmune diseases like Fibromyalgia, ME (Chronic Fatigue), Lupus, and others, used to be called “whiny woman’s disease” and to this day there are still medical practitioners who believe they are psychosomatic (all in the head) *3*. On top of that, many effective treatments for numerous disabilities are not covered by insurance like neuromuscular therapy, triggerpoint, myofascial release, and other “manual” medicine therapies.

Looking at it from a non-disabled perspective, in some ways it can be easy to understand Hollywood’s point of view.

  • If someone pitched to you saying they have a mental illness, your first thought is probably not ‘this is a great opportunity to represent a marginalized voice.’
  • If someone tells you they can’t work 12+ hour days, would you see them as an asset on a film set?
  • If someone needs extra accommodations, whether that is wheelchair access, a seeing-eye dog, a sign-language interpreter, or even something as simple as a special diet provided for them, would you be excited about figuring out how to meet their needs?

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You

It may be human nature to see disability accommodation as more work, stress, and money to an already demanding profession. On the flip side, there’s productions who will hire PA’s just to read out lines to their top talent, but when it is for actors with dyslexia or memory-related disabilities, they won't “spend the extra money” or go to the “extra effort.” This and the above bullet points are ableist.

That’s why these accommodations are protected under Federal law through the Americans With Disabilities Act. But it is near impossible to prove discrimination, especially in this industry.

The disability community just wishes we could be seen as valuable assets, more than worthy of the so-called “extra effort.” Because we are. Everyone, regardless of disability, deserves accommodations to help them succeed.

Let’s be real. We are all ableists, myself included. It is something we have to consciously choose to learn about, and choose to do better.

The subject of disability is uncomfortable. Most people don’t know how to talk with someone about disability. People are anxious about saying the wrong thing. It can often be depressing to talk about.

I’m the personification of the meme “Sometimes I don’t realize something was traumatic until I tell it as a funny story and everyone’s looking at me weird.”

Sorry for killing the mood, y’all.

And so whether it is a filmmaker with a disability or a story being pitched involving disability, the hurdles into this industry for disabled people are often insurmountable.

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You


There are three types of stories involving disabilities that Hollywood has historically liked:

  • On the one corner of the triangle is the “cripple as victim” or “pitied cripple” trope -

  • Tiny Tim, Crutchy from Newsies, Million Dollar Baby, Elephant Man, Me Before You, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Upside, Lieutenant Dan, Jake Sully of Avatar.

  • On another corner of the triangle, the evil cripple (often with mental illness and/or physical disability or deformity) -

  • Joker, Vader, General Grievous, Blofeld, Hook, Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, Elijah Price in Unbreakable, and hundreds more found here

  • And at the top, the “inspiring cripple” and “supercrip” tropes where disability is portrayed as something to be overcome by superhuman feats, or something that gives you genius-level abilities/intelligence -

  • Forrest Gump, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, K-Pax, The Aviator, Phenomenon, Monk, Book of Eli, River Tam in Firefly, Robocop, Zatoichi, Toph in A.T.L.A., Daredevil, Hulk, Chirrut Imwe (lots of superheroes), and hundreds more found here

Not all of the above characters or movies are completely problematic (some are). It is the prevalence of these depictions to the exclusion of all others that is so damaging.

This is a great site for exploring disability (and other) tropes and another great resource here and a more comprehensive list of sub-tropes here.

Hollywood is typically most interested in stories and story-crafters who fit the “inspiring cripple” trope that can help sell “inspiration porn.” Even with my own experience I find that when I am allowed to tell my “recovery” story, I get an infinitely more welcoming reception.

Who doesn’t like hearing those stories? I bet you had the same emotional response reading about my going from being mostly bedridden to having a full-time YouTube influencer job. I welcome celebration of my journey. But why do these have to be the only stories we are allowed to tell to represent disabilities… to be heard?

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You


Remember the 1996 Olympics when Kerri Strug did that amazing vault with an injured ankle?

At the time, I was certainly inspired. I was jumping up and down cheering, blown away by her selfless bravery.

Now I see it differently.

Now, Simone Biles historic work at the 2021 Olympics is what I cheer for.

Both of these gymnasts faced a disability. Look at society’s response:

  • Kerri Strug’s ankle injury is what the ADA calls a “short-term disability.” With this disability, she was coerced to endanger herself to perform a winning vault. In doing so she was hailed as a sports hero. She violently overcame her short-term disability, but the long-term effects were physically damaging. Did you know that vault ended her gymnastics career?
  • Simone Biles is neurodivergent, having ADHD. It is not our place to judge or even to know how or how much ADHD symptoms influenced this situation. The fact is she put her mental and physical health first and was derided as weak, selfish, and un-American, becoming perhaps the most hated gymnast of all time. I love her for it.

It takes a good deal more mental investment and emotional maturity to be inspired by Simone choosing to “sit the bench” rather than to have a suspenseful, climactic performance where she risks her health for Gold.

If the vitriol directed at Simone Biles is evidence of how our culture treats our top athletes when they take care of their health, you can imagine how people in our society treat others with disabilities.

At best, we are told to ‘suck it up,’ and ‘stop whining.’ We are gaslit, belittled, and denied accommodation. We lose our jobs but don’t have the ability to take our former employers to court. Only 35% of us have a job, yet of those without a job, 2 out of 3 are able to work but can’t find employers who will provide adequate accommodation *4*. Those of us who are employed make 37% less income than our non-disabled peers with the same job. This gap worsens the higher the skill/education level we have *5*. At the same time, the average household with a disabled member requires 28% additional income to have the same standard of living as a comparable household without a disability. *6*

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You

Did you know: Over 60% of people who are chronically homeless have experienced a lifetime of mental illness. On top of that, 42.8% of the homeless population have a disability. *7* How do you react when you see homeless people in your area?

All too often the stories we see of someone overcoming their disability depict a single moment of pushing through symptoms to achieve some external goal (Kerri Strug). It gives us a sense of catharsis and a reason to cheer. But in real life, the disability is often worsened by these choices.

It is normal, natural psychology to be inspired by those who overcome adversity, be it adversity from our external world, or our internal condition. It is normal, natural psychology to feel disappointed, discouraged, hopeless, or even angered by stories where obstacles aren’t violently conquered. Do we cheer for someone who seemingly gives up in the face of adversity?

And yet this is the world of disability, both chronic and acute. In the real world, our disability is something that is lived with... something that requires sufferance… something that is endured. Disability that can be overcome is typically overcome in means that lack fanfare - through rest, through support, through introspection, through pain, through love. It is an ugly, messy, tedious, often depressing, and from the outside, boring journey.

Because of this there is an attitude toward disability, that when it is not depicted as the “inspiring cripple” story, it should be kept to yourself.

Disability is treated like a rash on your crotch... no one wants to hear about it.

Our disability should not be treated like the One Ring. “Keep it secret, keep it safe.” It is not an evil, corrupting burden to the bearer or those around them that must be carried to the pit of Mt. Doom and cast in.

Disability is something that should be represented. Disability is something that should be explored. Disability is something that should be celebrated, in front of and behind the camera.

So are you an ableist? I believe we are all born into an ableist society and are therefore all ableist. So it's up to us to learn, grow, and choose to be anti-ableist.

Did you know: 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is not visibly apparent - an “invisible disability.” *8* Don’t judge that person with a handicap sticker as “faking it” because they “look fine.”

Did yoHow Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For Youu k


Not everyone in Hollywood is looking for disability inspiration porn. It’s just that there are so few people actively elevating disability voices that it is soul-crushing that a fair percentage of those who have some openness, only have eyes for this ableist “inspiring cripple” trope.

You remember that producer I mentioned at the beginning of this post? They asked about that - if my main character overcomes his anxiety disorder in the end.

No. Absolutely not. In fact, my main character’s disorder is worsened by the events of the story, making the denouement bitter-sweet (but also setting up a sequel).

The producer was confused… they asked why write it that way? If it isn’t about the main character overcoming his disability, what could possibly be the character’s arc, and why make him disabled at all? (The unspoken comment here - because people with disabilities are all two-dimensional, whose only defining characteristic is their disability - SMH)

I responded that the theme is about finding your internal significance, loving and accepting yourself where you are when others disregard you. The point is that most people with long-term/permanent disabilities (such as my main character’s neurodivergence) DON’T overcome their disability - they have to find a way forward in a world openly hostile to their differences.

The producer didn’t find that palatable and passed.

I’m not playing the disabled victim here. There may have been additional reasons why they weren't interested. But my experience with this producer is not unique.

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You


Recently Stage 32 held an introduce yourself weekend, FAIL weekend edition where people were encouraged to share their worst rejection stories. I was not surprised to see many posts from people who shared horror stories of being rejected due to their disability/neurodivergence. Seeing all those stories was the impetus for me writing this blog post.

If you have a disability, I encourage you to share your experiences in the comments below.

For everyone else, what can you do?

The first step is awareness. Talk to people with disabilities to learn about their struggles in this industry and what you might be able to do to help. Read some of those comments posted below. Follow disabled advocates/orgs on social media. Here’s a handful to get you started:

@mstatilee, @thetalanderson, @neurodiversally_unbroken, @carson_tueller, @RespectAbility,

@itslololove, @blindishlatina, @Diversability, @gabrielocasiocortez, @keely_cat_wells

Think about how the industry has unaddressed hurdles for disabilities - I’m sure it has never crossed your mind that 48-hour-type film festivals naturally discourage people with many kinds of disabilities from participating simply due to their format. This may not be “wrong” or something to be fixed, but you can begin to understand the hurdles people face.

Look for articles and resources on disability and disability representation in media.

How Hollywood Reacts to My Disability  And Why it Matters For You

When you see any variation of an “inspiring cripple,” or “inspiration porn,” question it. Does it leverage disability to make the story (even a BioPic) more emotionally compelling? Is disability used to make a villain more menacing? Is disability depicted as an obstacle to be overcome, to be triumphed over and make you cheer when it should be society’s lack of accommodations that is the obstacle to be overcome? Who benefits most from the depiction? Is it an Influencer giving a homeless person a wad of cash? Is a TV host amping up how inspiring a disabled person’s story is? How would the narrative be changed if they weren’t disabled?

For a deeper understanding of the “inspiration porn” issue, I highly recommend watching Stella Young’s Ted Talk “I’m not your inspiration”.

A great documentary that looks at how people with disabilities have been both shut out and inappropriately depicted in Hollywood is the 2018 film CinemAbility which is said to be “The most entertaining and comprehensive history of disability in American film and television ever.” Roger Ebert

If you are wanting to be inclusive of disabilities, AWESOME! A great resource for making sure your depictions are accurate and people with disabilities are properly included is RespectAbility. Comprised of diverse people with disabilities, RespectAbility’s entertainment media consultants partner with studios, production companies, writers’ rooms and news organizations to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. As a primer, here’s their Hollywood Inclusion Toolkit.

Finally, if you are a decision-maker in the industry, I encourage you to look for ways you may be acting on subconscious bias, marginalizing people with disabilities, either on or behind camera. Then actively implement ways to provide opportunities and accommodations to people with disabilities. For example, if you are hosting a talent search competition, consider a format that does not limit people with disabilities (i.e. don’t do a 48hr film challenge).

Disability representation is a multifaceted subject with many nuances. But at the end of the day, we deserve a place at the table and the means and opportunity to represent ourselves in all facets of the industry.

Get engaged

About the Author

Jeremy Andrew Davis

Jeremy Andrew Davis

Director, Screenwriter, Producer

A writer/director/producer, Jeremy draws on his neurodiversity to immerse audiences into experiences of marginalized people who must process their past trauma to navigate a hostile world. Using fast-paced genre writing Jeremy blends contemporary issues into entertaining thrill-rides that ultimately...

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