“The Shape of Water” Causes Controversy in Disability Community

Last week, nominations for the 90th anniversary of the Academy Awards were announced.

“The Shape of Water” has been nominated for a whopping 13 Academy Awards including best director (Guillermo del Toro), best actress (Sally Hawkins), best supporting actor (Richard Jenkins), best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer)  and best motion picture!

The romantic fantasy film, about a non-verbal woman janitor named Elisa, who falls in love with a gigantic sea creature, has been heralded  as “a love story like no other” by the Boston Globe, and “a dreamy, delightful masterpiece” by Vice. The News Gazette said the film is “a poignant, powerful fairy tale for our times that speaks to universal concerns — the alienation of the unique, the dangerous power spawned from needless paranoia and the importance of acceptance in a world accustomed to intolerance.”

Yet, in the disabilities community, opinions of the film vary. One objection from some members of the community regards the casting of verbal actress Sally Hawkins as Elisa. While no one is denying Hawkins’ acting abilities [she recently played disabled artist Maud Lewis to critical acclaim], some are expressing frustration that once again, a Hollywood director has failed to hire an actor with a disability to play the role of a character with a disability.

Alice Wong writes about this phenomenon for Teen Vogue. “Disabled people are everywhere, and yet we’re invisible and erased by people with unexamined privilege in the center. An example of ableism: when it’s the default that disabled characters are played by nondisabled actors. Think about the Oscar buzz around Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and the performance of Sally Hawkins, who plays a nonspeaking person who uses sign language.”

Writes Elsa Sjunneson-Henry for science fiction fantasy blog, Tor.com:  “Disabled actors are constantly passed over; disabled characters instead being presented as “challenging” roles for abled people to play. It would have been a much more powerful film had the actress been a disabled woman, especially someone whose sign was fluent and natural, a sign language that she relied upon every day to communicate, and not just for a single role.”

In the same blogpost, Sjunneson-Henry writes: “With the exception of “Children of a Lesser God,” [in 1986] it is the first time I have ever seen a disabled woman as an object of desire.”

While that seems like a positive step, it is overwritten by the fact that the one who desires Elisa, is not a human being, but a monster.

“At its core, “The Shape of Water” asks us to consider what a freak is,” writes Sjunneson-Henry. “Is a monster a god? Is a disabled woman a freak? An outsider? Can she be loved or understood by her own kind, or are the monsters the only ones who can truly understand her? Unfortunately, the answer to this movie was that no, she cannot be loved by her own kind, and yes, she is an outsider. A monster. A freak.”

Yet, writing for the “Hollywood Reporter,” Kristen Lopez, a writer with a disability, sees “The Shape of Water’s” message in more hopeful terms. “As a film writer with a physical disability, I find it hard not to feel personally offended by movies that reiterate that disabled people aren’t sexual. It’s even worse being a woman with a disability, where the lack of actresses playing disabled characters leaves one to question if Hollywood thinks disabled women can’t be sexy at all. But watching “The Shape of Water” gives me hope that maybe barriers can be broken down regarding sex and disability.”

Have you seen “The Shape of Water?” What did you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Award Season and the Disabilities Community

It’s that time of year again. In the past several weeks, the People’s Choice Awards, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and the American Cinematographer Awards have all taken place. The Grammys, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards will all air later this month. Though it’s been a great year for film and TV overall, when it comes to the representation of people with disabilities it left a lot to be desired.

Despite the fact that one in five Americans has some sort of disability, it’s rare to find a realistic, three dimensional major character with a disability on TV or in film. Even when a TV show or movie does feature a character with a disability, the role is seldom played by an actor with a disability. In fact, the Ruderman White Pages Report on Employment Of Actors With Disabilities In Television recently found that, “Ninety-five percent of characters with disabilities … are played by able-bodied actors.”

That said, in the past year, a number of TV programs and films featuring main characters with disabilities have drawn praise from critics. “Speechless” an ABC sitcom that airs on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. is especially groundbreaking.


Starring Minnie Driver as headstrong mom Maya DiMeo, “Speechless” is a typical sit-com about a typical family with one important difference. JJ, Maya’s eldest son, has cerebral palsy, is nonverbal and uses an augmentative alternative communication device to express himself. “Speechless” deserves credit for casting a young actor who actually has cerebral palsy to play the role of JJ. The actor, Micah Fowler and his realistic depiction of the teen boy with disabilities has received high praise from James Poniewozik of the New York Times.

“JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) is no angel. He’s sarcastic; he’s a little devious; he can be rude. In other words, he’s a teenager…That JJ has cerebral palsy, which keeps him from speaking, as well as limits his obscene gestures, is what makes ABC’s “Speechless” distinctive. That he’s a flawed kid with a flawed family in a reasonably funny sitcom is what makes ‘Speechless’ good, rather than simply worthy.”

Photo of "The A Word"“The A Word”

Originally created as a six-part series from the BBC, and based on a popular Israeli show, “The A Word” is a highly rated drama about the journey of a family who learns that their 5-year-old son has autism. “For the most part … “The A Word” feels true and honest,” writes Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times. “Other shows that have used characters with disabilities for secondary plotlines have often seemed simplistic or glib, going for quick tears or feel-good moments. This one’s unblinking, and more powerful for it.”

“The A Word” was recently acquired by the Sundance Channel and no word on when the second season will air. Catch up on the first six episodes now.
“Finding Dory”

Image of DoryIt’s unusual to find a character with a disability at the center of a children’s movie. Yet Disney Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” spinoff, “Finding Dory” is a breath of fresh air. Dory, a little blue fish with a cognitive disability, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, endeared herself to audiences young and old when the film premiered last spring. Other characters in the film also have disabilities. “Destiny has impaired vision, while Bailey struggles with echolocation; Hank deals with anxiety, and Nemo has that “lucky” undersized fin,” writes Chris Heady in his review for USA Today. In fact, said Heady, “Finding Dory” “could change the conversation about disabilities.”

Image from "Asperger's Are Us"“Asperger’s Are Us”

This 2016 documentary tells the true story of a comedy troupe made up of four old friends— Noah Britton, New Michael Ingemi, Jack Hanke and Ethan Finlan— all on the autism spectrum, who met while attending camp together in their teens. Kimber Meyers of the LA Times says the film, directed by first-timer Alex Lehmann, will appeal to most viewers.
“If you have an affection for puns or off-kilter humor, it’s hard not to be charmed by ‘Asperger’s Are Us.’ But even if what you find funny extends beyond T-shirts that say “Ask me about my fear of strangers,” the four young men at the heart of this documentary will easily find a home in all but the hardest of hearts.”

On their website, “Asperger’s Are Us,” are forthright about their mission. “We do not poke fun at Asperger’s and we did not form to prove that autistic people can be funny. We formed for the same reason anyone does comedy: To make you laugh!”