Although there have been recent complaints that both actors and characters with disabilities are underrepresented on television, two excellent documentaries about disabilities have aired in the past year. Journey into Dyslexia, which appeared on HBO in May of 2011, profiles students and adults who have dyslexia. According to the HBO web page, many of the adult professionals who struggled to learn in school now consider their dyslexia a gift and a defining reason for their successes. Critics called the straightforward interviews with the persons with dyslexia, including children, the most powerful part of the documentary, which was made by Academy-award winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond. Among those interviewed are a professor at Johns Hopkins University, inventors, entrepreneurs, and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. Additionally, the HBO website accompanying this documentary is rich with information on dyslexia. Another documentary from the Sundance film festival on dyslexia is called The D Word.
A second documentary, Lives Worth Living , follows the evolution of the disability rights movement starting in the post-World War II years through the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. We take for granted the government’s insistence that our schools, public buildings, and transportation must all be handicapped accessible. Fred Fay, one of the leaders of the disability rights movement who is featured in the documentary, suffered a devastating spinal cord injury as a teenager. He described how Washington DC, where every corner had a curb but no ramp, was like the Berlin Wall for someone in a wheelchair. Lives Worth Living reminds us of what life for the disabled used to look like in this country and the extraordinary tenacity of those individuals who fought for and secured civil rights for the disabled. The documentary, which aired in October 2011, is filled with archival footage, including film of the disabled leaving their wheelchairs and crawling up the steps of the Capitol.
Another documentary that really hit the mark is called For Once in My Life which aired on PBS. It details a group of musicians all of whom have different disabilities who make wonderful music together and ultimately get to perform for the National Council of Mayors who were holding their annual meeting in Miami, Florida. What I appreciate the most about this documentary is that it is not a sentimental treatment of these adults with disabilities. They are shown in their good and bad moments, struggling with their respective challenges and overcoming them with the support of the band director and each other. The music they make together is excellent and professional, and secondary to that is that the musicians have disabilities.
Another film that was just released that I have not viewed but sounds interesting is about fencing for people who are blind. Robert Redford co-produced a film that is currently airing at Sundance called The Movement: One Man Joins an Uprising (see trailer) about several people with disabilities who regain a sense of freedom through skiing. A top ten list of disability recommended documentaries is here although some feature adult themes that are not intended for children.
These documentaries are generally available for purchase from the HBO, PBS and other websites and excerpts are available online. Some of the films are hard to locate but may be available through public or university libraries.