Movies: No Longer “The Stuff of Dreams” for People with I/DD

Group of people enjoying a movie in a theater

We don’t see many films coming out of Hollywood with disabled characters played by disabled actors. And, it’s downright rare for such films to be critically acclaimed. There was a time when it was almost commonplace for typically developed actors to earn an Emmy for playing characters with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD).

While Hollywood moves more slowly, the industry is making progress. Independent production companies are taking the lead on making sure we have movie options that represent people with disabilities fairly and authentically. Accurate representation promotes inclusion and understanding in all our lives.

To help you find movie options featuring actors with I/DD we have put together the following list with movies that include and often star actors with I/DD. Trailers are linked below.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” Adventure-Comedy-Drama, 2019

Zak, played by Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome, runs away from his assisted-living facility to attend a wrestling school and become a professional wrestler. Stowing away on a small fishing boat, he becomes friends with the boat’s owner (played by Shia LeBeouf) as they make their way downriver. “Peanut Butter Falcon” was the highest grossing independent film in 2019.

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” Documentary, 2020

“Crip Camp” looks back at Camp Jened, located in the New York Catskills. In the 1950s and 60s Camp Jened welcomed people with disabilities. It was a time when those with disabilities were often institutionalized and not welcome at mainstream summer camps. “Crip Camp” shows us the experiences of campers and the revolutionary spirit surrounding the camp. Many campers went on the be leaders in the U.S. disability rights movement.

“Keep the Change” Romance, 2017

In “Keep the Change” David played by Brandon Polansky who has autism, is sent to Connections, a program for people who have autism. Sarah, played by Samantha Elisofon who also has autism, becomes attracted to him and romance blossoms. Rated NR for sexuality.

“Carol of the Bells” Romance, 2019

Scott, played by RJ Mitte who lives with cerebral palsy, finds his biological mother Carol, played by Andrea Fay Friedman, who has Down syndrome. While “Carol of the Bells” shares the Christmas message of family and forgiveness, Scott’s grandmother is determined to protect her daughter, Carol, from Scott and his wife. “Carol of the Bells” was produced by Inclusion Films, owned by Joey Travolta (brother of John Travolta). It also features a special cameo by Geri Jewell, recognized as the first primetime actor with cerebral palsy.

“Best Summer Ever” Musical, 2021

Catch it while it’s hot! “Best Summer Ever” is scheduled for release on April 27. This fresh take on the teen musical genre of boy meets girl emphasizes inclusion. It features eight original songs and a fully integrated cast and crew with and without disabilities.

“Best Summer Ever” is a film by Zeno Mountain Farm. Originally called the Cheshire Project, the goal was to bring friends together to make a movie, Hollywood style. Along the way they, “realized that no one was making films that featured people with disabilities, particularly ones that do not focus on the disability. Our films were about pirates, time travelers, and Zac Efron and people loved them!” So, they made more and are now part of Zeno Mountain Farm, a host to annual camps and retreats in Vermont for people with and without disabilities. Many “campers” come back year after year for “Film Camp,” and are part of an inclusive group tackling ever larger film productions.

“Bulletproof” Western, 2013

A western short, also from Zeno Mountain Farm, stars people with disabilities who must save their beloved Bulletproof saloon from the evil villain.

“Becoming Bulletproof” Documentary, 2014

A feature-length documentary “Becoming Bulletproof” about the making of “Bulletproof” took home honors at more than that 20 film festivals. Watch “Bulletproof” and “Becoming Bulletproof” here along with many other short films from Zeno Mountain farm.

“Jeremy the Dud” Spoof, 2017

Jeremy the Dud is an irreverent comedy short set in an opposite world where everyone has a disability. Those who don’t are treated with the same prejudice, stigma and condescending attitudes people with disabilities often face in our society.

Movies that don’t focus on disability

While we work toward seeing more people with disabilities in movies that aren’t about the disability, as Zeno Mountain Farm does, we must point out a few films that have flown under the radar in years past. You might not have known that actors and even leads in the following films have developmental disabilities.

“Ghostbusters, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Driving Miss Daisy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife”

Dan Aykroyd was diagnosed with Tourette’s as a child. As an adult, he found he has autism spectrum disorder, which helps to explain his long-time obsession (his words) with ghosts and police badges. He credits his obsession with prompting the Ghostbusters movie. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is Aykroyd’s latest film and is due to be released on November 11, 2021.

Honorable Mentions: Actors and their movies worthy of conversation

Several award-winning actors with epilepsy came up in our research. While epilepsy is considered a developmental disability many “grow out of it” or manage their condition living relatively typical lives. We have included the following because the movies aren’t about disability and it’s not uncommon for people with other developmental disabilities to have seizure disorders. Having a conversation about the actor and their disability may be beneficial.

“Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, V for Vendetta”

Hugo Weaving played Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy, Elrond in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, the freedom fighter known as “V” in V for Vendetta as well as appearing other films. Weaving lives with epilepsy and has been medicated for 30 years. After running out of his medication on a movie set in the desert, he found out the drugs were masking an anxiety disorder.

“The Color Purple, BOPAH!, The Royal Tenenbaums, Witness, Places in the Heart, Lethal Weapon”

Danny Glover played many notable roles throughout his career, most worth watching again. Glover had epilepsy as a child and as he began to recognize warning signs, he “got a bit stronger and the symptoms began to diminish.” He works to bring awareness to epilepsy through the Epilepsy Foundation.

Before we go

Easterseals Disability Film Challenge

If you enjoy short films like Bulletproof, then you’ll like the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. They have a wide selection of films from their annual weekend film challenge for filmmakers with disabilities. It’s a big hit and huge opportunity for aspiring actors and film makers. You can stream over 200 short films and watch their 2021 Virtual Award Show on May 6.

Checkout our lists for television and streaming media and Children’s books, both featuring people with disabilities.