Critical film analysis in the context of disability studies is introduced, and implications of disability portrayals in film are discussed. Two films often used in middle school classrooms, Simon Birch and The Mighty, are introduced and briefly summarized. The films are critiqued using Norden's conceptualizations of stereotypic roles for characters with disabilities including the "sweet innocent" and "comic misadventurer." Finally, the importance of critical screening is outlined and ways that teachers can use these films in ways that are respectful of people with disabilities based on criteria developed by Safran (2000) are offered.

Film is a powerful medium that can affect how students think about people, places, cultures, and issues. Films with characters with disabilities are often shown in classrooms (for example, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Glass Menagerie, Moby Dick, Gattaca, A Beautiful Mind). How and when movies are used in schools is important, as viewings with little analysis or reflection may have unintended consequences, sending the message that inaccurate or exaggerated stereotypes about disability are accurate and acceptable (Chervenak 2006; Longmore 1985; Norden 1994). Uninformed readings of film may reinforce negative and inaccurate beliefs and stereotypes about disability, and may perpetuate stigma status of people with disabilities. In educational settings, teachers can foster engagement and empathy through careful choices and active reading of films (Considine and Baker 2006).

In this article the authors critique two films commonly used in middle school classrooms, Simon Birch and The Mighty, that portray young adolescent boys with physical disabilities as both pitiable and heroic, and then discuss the implications of these portrayals. The Mighty, the film adaptation of Rodman Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty, is typically used in middle school classrooms to reinforce literature units in which the novel is studied. Simon Birch is suggested by John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and both films focus on friendships between two outcast boys and have been used in middle school classrooms to reinforce themes of relationships, friendships, identity, and the heroic spirit.

In three semesters of informal surveys in one author's undergraduate elementary education course on integrating students with disability labels into general education settings, when asked if they had seen Simon Birch as middle or high school students, typical replies were "Awwww!" "I felt so sad for Simon!" and "I cried so hard!" Both films are of the sentimental coming-of-age genre in which girls are largely absent, and follow formulaic conventions of the buddy-picture, including chases, overturned fruit carts, and "boys-will-be-boys" pranks (Ebert 1998). These films are usually presented as positive and empowering representations of disability, as models to nondisabled students or "normates," about overcoming adversity, leading selfless lives, and heroism. Yet these films are mired in the presentation of these boys as both selfless heroes and pitiable individuals, whose heroism and sacrifice emanate directly from their "afflictions."

Film is typically used in schools from a "protectionist approach" in which media audiences are considered to be "passive victims" and print media is valued over visual media (Kellner and Share 2007, 60). In classrooms, students often read a book and then watch the movie. While we may support critical engagement with the print texts, students are not often encouraged to "read" the films critically. We often do not interrogate the hidden curriculum of film, to "see underneath, behind, and beyond the texts, how these texts establish and use power over us, over others, on whose behalf, and in whose interests" (Molden 2007, 50).

Through uncovering the hidden curriculum in media texts, teachers and students can resist the notion that the "only reality" is the "worldviews of those with privileged positions" (Delpit 1995, xv) and teachers can help students understand the relationships between students' "lived experiences and structures of domination and consent" (Giroux, 2001, 108). Critical pedagogy provides students the power to question the status quo and hold multiple viewpoints that resist the dominant constructions presented in film. In particular, critical examinations of Simon Birch and The Mighty can not only give students the tools to resist the constructions of disability as selfless, heroic, and pitiable, but can also provide students with ways to galvanize "collective political struggle around the issues of power and social determination" (Giroux, 2001, 111). By uncovering power differentials related to disability, students can then examine other "categories of deviance that stratif[y] students" (Apple 1995, 20).

Our purpose in this article is to challenge a construction of disability that reinforces pitying and stereotypically negative perceptions and that juxtaposes difference with "normative." First, we explore critical film analysis and ways to use a disability studies lens to critique film. Then, we critically examine these two movies using Norden's conceptualizations of stereotypic roles for characters with disabilities and discuss the ways that these films reinforce limiting stereotypes about disability. Finally, we offer ways that teachers can use these films in ways that are respectful of people with disabilities and that are accepting of difference in classrooms, based on criteria developed by Safran (2000).

Critically Reading Film

Regardless of the accuracy of its portrayal of disability characteristics, film functions as a major information source on the nature of disabilities (Safran 1998). Norden (1984, x) asserts that since audiences are consumers of movies, not only are the representations in these movies reflections of societal values, but they are also "politically charged commodit[ies] that moviemakers are asking audiences to buy." Thus, audiences not only buy the tickets to watch the film, they may also buy into the representations and the values associated with them. This is particularly true if students are not helped to develop media literacy skills that include asking critical questions about the messages in the media; this may include making comparisons, analyzing patterns of representation, or studying adaptations of literature (Hobbs 2006, 36).

Film both "reflects and affects our social worldview" (Pavlides 2005, 52), including our perceptions of people with disabilities. While movies entertain, they simultaneously "provide viewers with information about disabilities, and … project representations of how individuals fit into a nation's social and political landscape" (Safran 2001, 223). Information about disabilities affects all viewers; in addition, for individuals with a disability, images of themselves are especially important, as those images become the "truths" about disability that are accepted by audiences (Darke 1998).

Critical analyses of disability characterizations and the functions they serve in film are needed to open our minds to how we think about disability. Such analyses of filmic portrayals of characters with disabilities can illuminate social norms and power differentials regarding normalcy and representations of what is considered "normal" in culture. An informed reading of film in which characters with disabilities play both major and minor parts can contest the idea that disability is an individual plight, and assert that disability is a social and political issue that involves discrimination, negative imagery, and lack of opportunity (Linton, Mello, and O'Neill 1995; Linton 1998). If read uncritically, a film such as Rainman, while a somewhat accurate portrayal of some forms of autism, reaffirms the decisive separations our society makes in "creating the normal versus the pathological, the insider versus the outsider, or the competent citizen versus the ward of the state" (Linton 1998, 2). From the perspective of disability studies, critical analysis of themes in film and disability imagery "puts into relief patterns of behaviors and policy that have significant consequences for disabled people" (Linton, Mello, and O'Neill 1995). These representations are the outcome of attitudes and beliefs that include a fear of disability and pity for people with disabilities.

Disability is around us more than we are willing to recognize or notice, and those who are temporarily able bodied may hold anxieties about the possibilities of disablement, of themselves or someone close to them. What we fear, we stigmatize, stereotype, and avoid (Longmore 1985; Safran 1998). Films reflect this pattern, and often the representations of disability portrayed in film differ vastly from the lived experience of disability. Typically, movies that depict disability often do so with the purpose of affirming able-bodied audiences of their normality (Ellis 2003). Thus, film has the capacity to create "derogatory stereotypes that reinforce negative social attitudes and result in prejudice and discrimination" (Safran 1998, 475). Although the intention of filmmakers is not necessarily to depict reality, these images take on political meanings and consequently help shape the daily obstacles formed by public perceptions, creating "negative outcomes for persons with disabilities" (Safran 1998, 475).

Stereotypic representations of individuals with disabilities in film include those that revolve around pity, innocence, and adventure, culminating in heroic status. Norden's "sweet innocent" is a disabled character who inspires pity, like Dickens' Tiny Tim, who is far more "reactive than proactive and seem[s] to bring out the protectiveness of every good-hearted able-bodied person who [comes] his or her way" (Norden 1994, 33). Many disabled male characters are "comic misadventurers" (Norden 1994, 28), who may provide comic relief, but who rarely get the girl. The inverse of the pitiable "sweet innocent" is the "civilian superstar," or supercrip. This character is "a heroic disabled person" (Norden 1994, 28), who overcomes his or her disability to accomplish amazing feats or to save nondisabled characters.

Characters with disabilities are usually pitied until they garner the respect of others and are then elevated to elite status by acts of heroism. "Civilian superstars" sometimes become "tragic victims," whose deaths are mired in the heroism of their actions, and the audience is led to believe that their deaths are necessary; as a result, while audiences may weep for the victim, they understand that the disabled character could not possibly remain in the world (Hayes and Black 2003). All of these conceptualizations function to present disability as a narrative device to advance the plot of a film or to serve as foils to or saviors of nondisabled characters (Mitchell 2002). This is certainly the case in Simon Birch and The Mighty.

Reading Film in the Middle School Classroom

Middle school students, as adolescents, are increasingly able to "think beyond the concrete, current situation to what might or could be … Instead of viewing problems as having black-and-white solutions, they are capable of perceiving shades of gray" (Feldman 2008, 70). This developing skill plays an important role as teachers help students understand that there are many ways to portray disability, and critically reading film includes seeing multiple possibilities.

Wood (1989) asserts that films often represent "quick and simple" solutions that tell viewers the problem is not as overwhelming as we dread, that it is controllable, or that it is not our problem to worry about, but someone else's. These quick and simple solutions are rarely so, especially in relation to disability. Learning to read movies with an emphasis on how disability is constructed is an important task given both the increasing visibility of people with disabilities in American society and the increased educational focus of providing access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities.

We propose that teachers carefully choose and assess any movie used in the classroom, and if the film is even peripherally related to disability, prepare to provide discussion about and critique of disability and stereotypes within the films. Hobbs (2006) notes that "media literacy skills can be developed by asking critical questions about media messages" (36); strategies for asking critical questions can include a wide range of strategies. Woelders (2007) proposes that preparation for discussion of film in historical inquiry for middle school students should, ideally, include scaffolding to guide inquiry and build on prior understandings of a topic (146). He explains that two ways to scaffold film viewing and inquiry are the use of a know-wonder-learn chart that includes columns for each category to record whether or nor the information was confirmed by other sources, and anticipation guides that allow students to review material in advance of the screening. Woelders (2007) notes that good anticipation guides "use prediction and controversy to stimulate interest and thinking about a topic" (148), confirming the importance of preparation and critical questioning in the use of film review. Both the know-wonder-learn chart and anticipation guide strategies can be highly effective in supporting the media literacy skill development that is an important part of critical film analysis.

In addition to using film to reinforce material in course units, Dole and McMahan (2005) advocate the use of film in videotherapy contexts for students with learning disabilities and emotional issues, in which teachers and students engage with the themes and characters in the film as they relate to students' lives. They provide a lesson plan for the film Rudy, which focuses on the themes of "being self-determined, persevering, and overcoming odds" (152). Discussion questions focus on students' planning their goals and persevering in the face of adversity.

The same authors suggest that The Mighty be used in videotherapy contexts with the themes of "building on strengths" and "friendships" and that Simon Birch be used to engage with the themes of "purpose in life," "friendship," and "faith" (2005 153). Brown (2005) provides an evaluation form that teachers can use with film adaptations of novels that has three parts: a rationale or purpose for use, special considerations, and a comparison and contrast of the book and the adaptation. However, analysis of film that interrogates representations of disability perspective rarely occurs (Safran 1998; Connor and Bejoian 2006).

Safran (2000) provides several considerations in choosing movies to be shown in classrooms, including that teacher: 1) preview films and verify the accuracy of portrayals of disability; 2) choose films that cast people with disabilities as characters with disabilities, that portray people with disabilities as full participants in their communities and schools, that include characters that are fully developed so that disability is embedded in the plot and is not the primary focus; and 3) avoid films that sensationalize or stereotype people with disabilities. Connor and Bejoian (2006) adapted Safran's evaluation tool and constructed a form that evaluates positive and negative representations of disability, based on the considerations listed above. Attention to positive and negative stereotypes and actively reading movies in the context of representations of disability can assist "in unlearning pervasive stereotypes and acquiring new and different ways to view human difference" (Connor and Bejoian 2006, 59).

However, a focus on stereotypes and representations of disability is not enough. Inextricably linked to critical pedagogy is participatory engagement with the text, to examine "whose voices are included and whose excluded, preferred perspectives and alternative perspectives" (Iyer 2007, 166). Critical race theory interrogates "institutional forces that have a disparate impact on racial minority communities" (Parker and Stovall 2004, 174); teachers engaged in critical pedagogy do this with any cultural difference — race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, ability status — that is deemed "natural." One strategy to engage in this process is to use questioning. Skinner (2007) used the following six questions with 7th grade girls to support their critical engagement with popular magazines and movies:

What beliefs or messages are being presented in this text? Do you agree with these beliefs or messages? What are some of the other beliefs on this issue? Who benefits from the beliefs presented in this text? What is marginalized (gets left out) by the beliefs presented in this text? If you were going to write your own text addressing these issues, which beliefs would you take up and which beliefs would you resist? (33).

All of these questions can be used to guide students in discussions critiquing disability stereotypes. Teachers can challenge the idea that inequality is natural and help their students uncover how schools and broader society not only manage categories of difference and deviance, but also how they create and enforce the meanings of these categories (Fine 1997; Hayman 1998; Minow 1990).

The Films

In this section we review scenes from the films, interrogating the prevailing negative beliefs about disability that are present, based on the typology of stereotypes developed by Norden. First, we provide a brief synopsis of each film, followed by an examination of the ways the characters are introduced. Second, we explore particular scenes that imply that disability is negative and pitiable. Third, we review the ways in which each character with a disability is constructed as a harmless "sweet innocent," and an asexual "comic misadventurer." Finally, we examine the quests that the boys take on and how the boys are transformed into superstars and tragic victims.

Simon Birch Synopsis

Set in 1964, Simon Birch is the story of two friends who grow up together in a small New England town. Simon Birch is physically very small, and believes he was sent by God to do something wonderful. His best friend Joe Wentworth narrates the story as an adult, telling the audience about their childhood. At the time of the movie the boys are 12 or 13 years old. Both boys are outcasts in their community: Simon for his short stature and his belief that since his survival after birth was a miracle he is destined to perform a miracle, and Joe for his illegitimate birth status. The narrative of the film revolves around a quest. Simon is searching for his purpose and Joe seeks the identity of his father. At the end of the film, the boys find what they are looking for. Joe finds his father and Simon performs his miracle: saving a school bus full of young students when the bus slides off an icy road and plunges into a lake. After the rescue he falls ill and dies, saying from his bed "Joe, gotta go now," before drifting to sleep and then into death.

The Mighty Synopsis

Set in Cincinnati, The Mighty is the story of middle school students Max Kane and Kevin Dillon. Like Simon Birch, both main characters are rejected by their community. Max, whose father murdered his mother in front of him, lives with his grandparents, and is very shy. Physically very large for his age, he lumbers through school and is frequently taunted for his difficulty with reading. Kevin is gifted academically, but has a physical disability; he needs braces and crutches to walk, is small for his age, and is often ill. At school Kevin is assigned to be Max's peer reading tutor, and the two become friends as Kevin introduces Max to reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As the two outcasts become friends, they engage in quests, roaming around Cincinnati rescuing damsels in distress (e.g., a woman being verbally abused by her boyfriend) and standing up to the local middle school gang, the Doghouse Boys. Ultimately, Max's father, recently released from prison, kidnaps Max and Kevin rescues him. The film ends with Kevin's death, in part due to the stress of the rescue.

Simon and Kevin: The Introduction

Both Simon and Kevin are introduced in ways that highlight their differences and in ways that set them apart from others. Simon Birch opens in a churchyard with a grown Joe (narrated by Jim Carrey) reflecting how Simon is the reason he believes in God. The film cuts to a flashback of Sunday school. There is an almost freak show quality to the beginning of the film — in a scene set to whimsical music, Simon is lifted up and passed around in a crucifixion pose by the other kids in the Sunday school class, while Simon demands to be put down. Simon's birth is recounted with carnivalesque background music. Simon is born not with a contraction, but with a sneeze, and due to his very small size, he becomes an attraction at the hospital — people gather and gasp and stare at him in the nursery. From the moment of his birth, Simon is the object of what Thomson (1997) calls the "gaze," that is, the gaze of the normate at the disabled figure.

Similarly, Kevin is introduced in a way that emphasizes his difference. Max and the audience first meet Kevin as he works behind a fence; this adheres to a convention of film that alludes to the othering or mysterious quality of a character. We first see Kevin in a gym at school as the camera turns to Kevin, who, slightly bent over, walks into the gym using crutches. One of the Doghouse Boys takes aim at Kevin, and using the basketball as a bowling ball, knocks Kevin over and blames it on Max.

Negative and Pitiable Constructions of Disability

In these films Kevin and Simon are constructed as different by those around them. They want opportunities that they, and others in the films, believe are afforded only to people without disability. However, the responsibility of seeking out these opportunities is left to them as individuals. These films provide no critique of prevailing stereotypes about disability; in fact, negative attitudes about difference are reified. For example, as Joe, riding a bike, and Simon, riding in an orange box sidecar, pass by two old men who represent the townspeople, one mutters to the other "there goes the Wentworth bastard and his granite mouse." Joe is open to attack because his mother is not married, a definitely different status at the time and place of the film, and Simon is physically different. Similarly, The Mighty offers such representative utterances about Max and Kevin at the beginning of the film. Max is teased as having no brain and his coach refers to him as a Neanderthal, while one kid says to his group as Kevin walks into the gym, "Hey, check out the March of Dimes."

The Mighty reinforces the idea that disability is pitiable and an undesired state of being through statements by Kevin and his mother. When Kevin is assigned to be Max's reading tutor, Max states that he won't be able to read text from King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable that is assigned to him by Kevin. Kevin, becoming increasingly emotional, states, "You can't? Oh, you will! Or, you might end up in one of those special schools, with kids who can't even say their own names!" In an exchange with the school principal, Kevin's mother asserts that while Kevin lives in a "world of books and words and ideas," he would "trade it all to be normal!" In both of these exchanges, Kevin and his mother reinforce a pitiable construction of disability, articulating a fear of intellectual disability and unquestioned belief that "normal" is preferable to a diverse experience of physical or cognitive disability.

In Simon Birch a cautionary lesson is presented: that the viewer must recognize difference and prevent those who are different from having opportunity to participate in inclusive ways, because if that is condoned, the results could be deadly. Simon kills Joe's mother when allowed to bat in the Little League baseball game — his first at-bat, late in the season — and the foul ball strikes her in the head. An implication of this development is that when people with disabilities are allowed to participate in "normate" games, the results are disastrous, and this should be prevented at all costs.

Comic Misadventurers and Sweet Innocents

Inherent in the roles of the "comic misadventurer" and "sweet innocent" are portrayals of characters as comic relief and as asexual innocents. Both of these archetypes are present in these films, and while episodes related to this provide comedic release, these scenes are generally viewed with little critique. In both films, the boys with outsider status bond and become best friends. Kevin and Max become "Freak, the Mighty" when Kevin, recognizing that "you need a brain and I need legs," rides on Max's shoulders, becoming, in essence, a knight and Max his steed, two "deficient" boys becoming one "whole" boy. During the beginning and middle of the film, "Freak, the Mighty" roams the seedier streets of Cincinnati rescuing those in need, such as breaking up domestic squabbles in diners and returning lost purses. Joe and Simon also become best friends, and spend their days engaging in "typical" small town boy play: they go to the quarry, swim, play baseball, and share adventures.

At some points in these films, the roles of "comic misadventurer" and "sweet innocent" converge. In The Mighty Kevin is in the lunchroom, entertaining the group by playing with his food, putting spaghetti on his eyebrows and head, pretending to be Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, and ultimately, a coy girl. A subtext is that he can't possibly be expected to have a girlfriend, so he will be the class clown. As the group laughs and responds, he continues, getting uproarious laughter from his peers. As he becomes more and more animated, he starts to cough and choke, and Max carries him to the nurse. He ends up being hospitalized, the innocent who cannot exceed the limits of his frail body. The scene sends several messages: the boy with the disability is entertaining, his humor serves as a substitute for sexuality, and he is fragile. It is revealed that Kevin has Morquio syndrome. This scene clarifies for the audience that Kevin is different, special — not tuned to the same chronology as his peers, with an urgency born of his awareness that he may not live into adulthood — a misrepresentation of Morquio syndrome. In fact, the National Mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS) Society (2000, 13) states that

Those less severely affected [by Morquio's syndrome] have lived to their fifties and sixties. It is likely that medical advances and better management of the condition will significantly increase life expectancy. It seems sensible, therefore, for families to hope for a reasonable life expectancy for their child. (National MPS Society, 13)

It is clear that Kevin's genetic disorder is exaggerated to provide a dramatic turn in the film and to foreshadow his transition from supercrip to tragic hero.

In Simon Birch Simon is similarly situated as asexual and, without critique, the film reinforces the notion that people with disabilities cannot be sexual beings and should not expect to have that opportunity. One scene of this film, like the lunchroom scene in The Mighty, serves three purposes: comic relief, foreshadowing the tragedy, and the innocent and asexual nature of the disabled character. The scene begins with Joe and Simon engaging in boy play: they run to the swimming hole, Simon mimicking everything that Joe does, such as jumping up and trying to touch the bridge beam, shedding his clothes, and running into the water. Joe yells that the water is so cold his "balls have shrunk to marbles" while Simon adds that his have "shrunk to BBs." Their comments highlight the differences in their physical bodies. While one purpose of this scene is to show the normalizing activities in which Simon engages, the other purpose this has is to neuter Simon, rendering him asexual; that is, a boy with testicles as small as BBs cannot expect to find a girl to see him as desirable.

While the boys are hanging out on a swimming raft two girls come up in a canoe and flirt. While the girls are there, Simon whispers to Joe that he wonders if Maryann would let him touch her breasts if he paid her. Joe laughs and begins to tell Maryann what Simon said. Simon stops him from repeating it, and the girls leave. After the girls are gone, Joe teases Simon, saying that Maryann likes Simon. Simon responds that "She likes me the way girls like baby turtles. Girls don't kiss baby turtles. If you were me, you'd know." Simon voices the stereotype that people with physical disabilities cannot be sexual beings, and in so doing communicates this stereotype to the viewer.

However, another scene can be construed as disrupting this "sweet innocent" asexual portrayal of Simon. At the Christmas pageant, Simon is playing the baby Jesus, the ultimate "sweet innocent," and Maryann is Mary. He does touch Maryann's breasts by very forthrightly taking advantage of his position as she leans over him during a pageant melee, thus asserting his sexuality. This juxtaposition is positive in that we see Simon as a complex character; however, even though this particular scene challenges the "sweet innocent" role, for the majority of the film, his role as the innocent is dominant.

The Quest: Superstars and Tragic Victims

These films both include plot developments that include a quest, a building tension around a problem, and the resolution of the problem through Simon's and Kevin's sacrificing their health, their well-being, and ultimately their lives, to save someone else. Throughout the films, Kevin and Simon recognize that their lives are essentially quests, which suggests that people with disabilities can't just be ordinary people living typical lives, but are extraordinary supercrips. Kevin demonstrates this through his obsession with King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable and Simon through his obsession with the miracle of his survival and what it means. Both obsessions foreshadow the climax of the films.

In The Mighty, Kevin and Max, as the symbiotic "Freak, the Mighty," engage in knightly deeds, which lead up to the central quest of the story: Max is kidnapped by his murderer-father and Kevin, stealing a van and driving it with his crutch, searches for and rescues Max. Simon too finds the purpose of his life when during the winter he is on a bus with a group of children from church. The bus crashes into the river and the adults either run away or are hurt. Simon puts his underwater breath holding — which he has practiced throughout the film — to the test and rescues the children. Simon is convinced that the children listened to him because of his size.

Simon and Kevin are acknowledged as heroes, but their heroism has a price. Simon is so weakened by the rescue of the children that he dies. Kevin, in an unrealistic representation of Morquio syndrome, dies shortly after the rescue of Max because "his heart just got too big for his body." Simon is portrayed as a savior, as one who showed the town "what a martyr was." According to the adult narrator Joe, Simon is the reason he believes in God. Similarly, through Max's friendship with Kevin, Max was also saved. His life was literally saved, and Max became "cured" of his learning disability through his and Kevin's friendship and Kevin's guidance.

The resulting message is that the characters with disabilities only have value insofar as they rescue and redeem the normate characters — Kevin saves Max, Simon saves a busload of young children, and "saves" Joe from a life without faith. Kevin and Simon are "supercrips," who then become tragic victims whose utility ends when their companions are saved — and when that utility ends, they literally die. In their consideration of disability as a cultural sign, Hayes and Black propose a "reconciliation of confinement," in which institutionalization or other forms of confinement are considered benevolent and protective environments (2003, 124). In these films, the reconciliation is even more confining than institutionalization — they both die. The reconciliation from the constraints of their lived experience is one the viewer recognizes and applauds as Simon and Kevin are freed from the confinement of their disabilities through their deaths.


Simon Birch and The Mighty are valuable in that they positively portray friendships between disabled and nondisabled characters, but the damaging and limited representations of disability that these films offer can ossify prevailing stereotypes of disability so that audiences maintain a stigmatizing viewpoint of persons with disability labels (Biklen 1992; Kliewer 1998).

This is particularly true if the films are used in ways that are not optimal; in her study of teacher use of video in the K-12 classroom, Hobbs (2006) found that one half of teachers using film adaptations of literary works "included references to the word 'fun,' suggesting that video is a treat or reward after the 'heavy' work of reading literature" (45). Instead of uncritical reviews, films offer teachers the opportunity to engage in critical literacy from a disability studies perspective in their classrooms. Students can be guided to recognize the stereotypic and damaging ways that disability is articulated. In this way the power that these representations have over the viewer is diminished. These films can then be understood in a deeper context, read as the literature they are meant to reinforce.

Using these films in class can expose students to a broader examination of disability representations in popular culture. They can also be read in the context of "social messages" from which students and teachers draw meanings that shape their lives (Bruna 2007). It is essential that teachers approach these films in ways that allow students to be collectively involved in the active construction of knowledge: to read not only the word or images, but read the world through examining and questioning issues of power and equity in the texts and coming to understand the possibilities for change inherent in this interrogation (Freire 1970; Freire and Macedo 1987).

Finding one's identity is a common theme in adolescent literature, and the four main characters are engaged in self-discovery through the narrative device of being outcasts. Both Kevin and Simon are outsiders because of their disability. Disability is a difference that matters (Minow 1990), and their disability is a metaphor that establishes their construction as outsiders. Both boys are fully engaged in their friendships with Max and Joe, who are also outsiders in their communities, and all four boys are engaged in self-discovery. Both Max and Joe are outsiders in part because they do not have "typical" families.

In The Mighty, Kevin and Max are friends explicitly because of their rejection due to their perceived disabilities: Kevin because he has a physical disability, Max because he is perceived as intellectually slow. The friendship could be considered problematic, in that they see themselves as a whole person only by combining: they are not seem as having individual personhood, and only by combining their physical and intellectual strengths are they able to transform into one "whole" person. In Simon Birch, however, both boys, while outsiders and rejected by the majority of adults in their community, maintain their status as "whole" persons. Simon is friends with Joe, a fairly typical boy, and while Joe is the "town bastard," he is portrayed as an accepted member of his peer group. Simon benefits from his friendship with Joe in that Joe's acceptance of Simon as his best friend offers Simon membership in the community of his peers. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as Simon is Joe's confidant and partner in the discovery of the identity of Joe's father.

Both movies use disability as a major — or even sole — facet of Simon and Kevin's characters; it is their disability that drives the plot and informs their roles as innocents and superstars, then, finally, tragic victims. Their deaths at the end of the movies are almost laughable when we consider the role of the tragic victim. The viewer is essentially told that Simon and Kevin's deaths are inevitable and necessary. An audience that does not critically explore this narrative may feel pity and satisfaction that Kevin and Simon redeem their friends, serve their purposes, and then gallantly pass on to a better world. Both films conform to the discourse of disability pity outlined by Hayes and Black (2003). The literal and metaphorical elements of this discourse include confinement, hope for rehabilitation, denial of rehabilitation, and reconciliation of confinement. Interrogating these films using these elements may allow the viewer to deeply explore the representations of disability in the films.

In Simon Birch, Simon is "confined" by the limits of his physical body; he is not seen as a viable dating partner for Maryann, he is sometimes patronized by his peers, and is rejected by most adults, including his parents. He has hope for rehabilitation, for finding his identity, in that he believes he is called to do great things, and hopes that by performing a miracle, he will be rewarded with the respect and acceptance of the normate community. Throughout the movie he is denied this "rehabilitation," and is mocked by his Sunday school teacher and other adults for what they perceive to be his inflated sense of self. Near the end of the film he rescues the children. This fulfills his "hope for rehabilitation," as he discovers his purpose and identity through this act. Simon also experiences the ultimate denial of rehabilitation and reconciliation of confinement through his death.

Kevin similarly is confined by his physicality and the expectations of others in The Mighty. This is confirmed by his mother pleading with the principal to allow him to participate in physical education and by his own comments about being mostly alone and finding a refuge in books. He is stymied by his physical limits and is often cautioned by his anxious mother not to overdo. He hopes for rehabilitation in the form of a cure for his syndrome. This is cleverly portrayed through the construction of the "brave sick boy." At one point in the film, Kevin shows Max a "research center" which Max later discovers is an industrial laundry facility. Kevin harbors a secret hope that a cure will be found and he will live to adulthood — a convenient yet inaccurate representation of Morquio syndrome. He is denied this hope, and because he rescues Max, his purpose has been served and the viewer is satisfied with the resolution: Kevin saves Max, Max emerges from his basement bedroom into full personhood, and Kevin can fade from the film and from life. These representations of disability and the messages about the utility and purpose of people with disabilities in these films provide ways for teachers to engage their students with media texts and resist the protectionist approach to media inherent in them.

Recommendations for Using Film

In order to be successful in reframing students' attitudes towards outcomes for characters with disabilities, Chellew (2000, 28) notes that two elements are necessary: "the appropriate selection of films with sympathetic and accurate depictions of characters and situations; and an ongoing examination of the potential consequences of negative imagery on public attitudes." Similarly, Safran (2000) recommends that teachers use films that accurately portray disability, and, ideally, films that feature performers with disabilities who are full members of their communities and who are not portrayed in stereotypical ways. Simon Birch and The Mighty meet many of these criteria, but these films also articulate the stereotypes of disability representations often perpetuated in Hollywood film. In Simon Birch, Simon is played by Ian Michael Smith, an actor with Morquio syndrome, while in The Mighty, the actor does not experience disability; moreover, the disability that Kevin has, Morquio syndrome, is portrayed inaccurately.

When introducing characters with disabilities, it is essential that they are presented as nuanced characters who contribute more to the narrative than simply serving as a plot device. Many films, including these two that include disability share a common narrative arc that includes the character with a disability humanizing or saving a companion and then either dying or returning to a confined life. Rainman, for example, includes Raymond, the character with autism, humanizing his estranged brother then returning to life in an institution that substantially underestimates his abilities and limits his choices. Smith notes that Raymond is a "miraculous healer" who cures his brother, who then is "no longer avaricious, and reunites with his girlfriend as a newly reformed, caring, and sensitive lover" (Smith, 1999, 43). A second example is found in the science fiction movie Gattaca, which includes a man with a significant physical disability giving his tissue samples to an able-bodied but less academically talented friend, and then literally incinerating himself when the able-bodied character leaves the planet for new adventures.

Making connections to students' lives and their prior knowledge engages them in ways that allow them to create "discourses of their own that launch a study about subject matter not yet their own" (Shor 2005, 165). Molden (2007) provides questions for engagement in critical literacy, and two of the questions are "How are children, teenagers, or young adults constructed in this text?" and "How are adults constructed in this text?" One example of this process is guiding students to examine scenes in these films that construct teenagers and adults as bullies.

In Simon Birch, two old men call Joe and Simon "the Wentworth bastard and his granite mouse," and in The Mighty the gang the Doghouse Boys knock Kevin over by rolling a basketball at him in physical education class. Students can discuss what these scenes mean to them, and could be encouraged to talk about analogous experiences with bullying and ways that they have resisted bullying. A second way that students could engage critically would be to read Danforth's (1996) "Peanut Butter and Jelly," about his own participation in, then reflection upon, political (class) oppression. This reading could be used as a springboard for student discussion — either in journal entries or verbal discussion — of their own experiences. Extensions from this could include an examination of bullying on a larger scale, racial oppression, and the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement. Teachers could then show students clips from YouTube (http://www.youtube.com) of ADAPT protests and the American Medical Association offices in Chicago in 2007, or use other current ADAPT videos. Starting at the individual level, exploring bullying, to making connections to civil rights issues, expands students' analyses of both texts and of the larger social issue of disability rights.

Resisting a narrative that emphasizes overcoming a disability is essential — Clare (1999, 2) notes that "the dominant story about disability should be about ableism, not the inspirational supercrip crap, the believe-it-or-not disability story" (Clare, 2). One way to avoid this "supercrip crap" is to select films with depictions that educate students about individual abilities and societal barriers, and inform students about issues such as "accessibility, sexuality, and independent living" (Safran 1998, 467). These broad topics can be introduced to students by being infused into units of literature study, and students can be taught to view film critically; Considine and Baker (2006, 26) note that "in short, for learning to occur the focus has to shift from what they watch to how they watch."

One example of how to use films to identify and challenge a passive viewing of disability in film was explored by Connor and Bejoian (2006, 57); they taught an elective graduate course in which teachers were asked to develop units of study for use in elementary, middle, and high school classes, to "introduce, extend, invert, or subvert traditional notions of disability." They found that teachers were excited, and sometimes daunted, at the thought of creating such a unit. One teacher used the movie Babe to incorporate math skills, activities about being valued and being part of a community, and interdependence. Another group of teachers used excerpts from three pirate movies: Muppet Island, Hook, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to develop lessons around metaphors related to disability and how metaphors affect our thinking.

One of the strongest metaphors in The Mighty is the image at the end of the film, of Max's setting loose the mechanical bird that Kevin worked on in his opening scene. The mechanical bird flies through the sky, and the Knights of the Round Table — who appear throughout the film to reinforce the quest metaphor — appear to either say goodbye to Kevin as he ascends into heaven to become an angel, or to usher him to Avalon, where he will be the Once and Future King. In either interpretation, Kevin sacrifices his earthly personhood so that Max can fulfill his own personhood.

There are so many films that include characters with disabilities that it would not be useful to list them; instead, we suggest using some form of evaluation when considering using films that include representations of disability, such as the form used by Connor and Bejoian (2006), in which they provide a checklist of how to determine positive or negative representations of disability in media. Additionally, it is essential that teachers perceive the pedagogical use of films less as a passive activity with unexamined themes and little analysis, and more as a powerful manner in which to teach media literacy. Considine and Baker (2006, 26) acknowledge that teachers may be nervous about their own familiarity with teaching media literacy, but encourage teachers, noting that in their experience, teachers become quite comfortable with using new language related to the "codes, conventions, and language of cinema." Teachers can also apply these codes and conventions to examining the possibilities of civil and political resistance to disability oppression in media.

As advocates and educators who stress independent life skills and community integration, we recognize that students can be taught to contest and reexamine the disability stereotypes so prevalent in films used in classrooms. By using film as another text used for analysis, we can facilitate students' reading film in more appropriate ways, that affirm and celebrate difference, and that challenge the standard trope of disability: disabled character = savior = death. Students, and their teachers, can become transformative agents who read their texts in the context of social justice and equity and who will act in their worlds in those same contexts.


The authors thank Doug Biklen for introducing us to the critical examination of film, Rebecca Burns, Lauren Lieberman, Zach Rossetti, and Kati Fowler for their thoughtful comments and editing, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for their rich and constructive feedback.

Works Cited

  • Apple, Michael. 1995. Education and power. New York: Routledge.
  • Biklen, Douglas. 1992. Schooling without labels: Parents, educators, and inclusive education. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Brown, Jean. 2005. "Film in the classroom: The non-print connection." ALAN Review Winter, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4063/is_200501/ai_n13486914/print (14 Dec. 2007).
  • Bruna, Katherine. 2007. "Finding new words: How I use critical literacy in my multicultural teacher education classroom." Journal of Education for Teaching 33: 115-118.
  • Chellew, Kyle. 2000. "Inclusion not exclusion." Australian Screen Education 24: 26-30.
  • Chervenak, Andrea. 2006. "Depicting Disability in Film." Unpublished master's thesis, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.
  • Clare, Eli. 1999. Exile and pride: Disability, queerness, and liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  • Connor, David, and Lynne Bejoian. 2006. "Pigs, pirates, and pills: Using film to teach the social context of disability." Teaching Exceptional Children 39, no. 2: 52-60.
  • Considine, David, and Frank Baker. 2006. "Focus on film: They learn it thru the movies." The Journal of Media Literacy 53, no. 2: 24-32.
  • Danforth, Scot. 1996. Autobiography as critical pedagogy: Locating myself in class-based oppression. Teaching Education 9:3-14.
  • Darke, Paul. 1998. "Understanding cinematic representation of disability." In The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Tom Shakespeare, 181-200. London: Cassell.
  • Delpit, Lisa. 1995. Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.
  • Dole, Sharon, and Joanna McMahan. 2005. "Using videotherapy to help adolescents cope with social and emotional problems." Intervention in School and Clinic 40, no. 3: 151-155.
  • Ebert, Roger. 1998. Roger Ebert's video companion 1998. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.
  • Ellis, Katie. 2003. "Reinforcing the stigma: The representation of disability In 'Gattaca'." Australian Screen Education 31: 111-115.
  • Feldman, Robert. 2008. Adolescence. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Fine, Michelle. 1997. "Witnessing whiteness." In Off white: Readings on race, power, and society, eds. Lois Weiss, Linda Powell, and L. Mun Wong, 57-65. New York: Routledge.
  • Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: The Seabury Press.
  • Freire, Paolo, and Macedo, Donald. 1987. Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  • Giroux, Henry. 2001. Theory and resistance in education: Towards a pedagogy for the opposition . Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  • Hayes, Michael, and Rhonda Black. 2003. "Troubling signs: Disability, Hollywood movies and the construction of a discourse of pity." Disability Studies Quarterly 23, no. 3: 114-132.
  • Hayman, Robert. 1998. The smart culture: Society, intelligence, and law. New York: New York University Press.
  • Hobbs, Renee. 2006. "Non-optimal uses of video in the classroom." Learning, Media, and Technology 31, no. 1: 35-50.
  • Iyer, Radha. 2007. "Negotiating critical, postcritical literacy: The problematic of text analysis." Literacy 41, no. 3: 161-168.
  • Kellner, Douglas, and Share, Jeff. 2007. "Critical media literacy is not an option." Learning Inquiry 1: 59-69.
  • Kliewer, Christopher. 1998. Schooling children with Down syndrome: Toward an understanding of possibility. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Linton, Simi. 1998. Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Linton, Simi, Susan Mello, and John O'Neill. 1995. "Disability studies: Expanding the parameters of diversity." Radical Teacher 47: 4-10.
  • Longmore, Paul. 1985. "Screening stereotypes: Images of disabled people." Social Policy 16: 31-37.
  • The Mighty. 1999. DVD. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Hollywood, CA: Walt Disney Video.
  • Minow, Martha. 1990. Making all the difference: Inclusion, exclusion, and American law. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Mitchell, David. 2002. "Narrative prosthesis and the materiality of metaphor." In Disability studies: Enabling the humanities, eds. Sharon Snyder, Brenda Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, 15-30. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
  • Molden, Kellie. 2007. "Critical literacy, the right answer for the reading classroom: Strategies to move beyond comprehension for reading improvement." Reading Improvement 44: 50-56.
  • National MPS Society. 2000. A guide to understanding Morquio Syndrome. National Mucopolysaccharidoses Society. http://www.mpssociety.org/content/4064/MPS__ML_Booklets/ (15 Feb. 2008).
  • Norden, Martin. 1994. The cinema of isolation: A history of physical disability in the movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Parker, Laurence, and Stovall, David. 2004. "Actions following words: Critical race theory connects to critical pedagogy." Educational Philosophy and Theory 36, no. 2: 167-182.
  • Pavlides, Merope. 2005. "Whose choice is it, anyway? Disability and suicide in four contemporary films." Journal of Disability Policy Studies 16, no. 1: 46-53.
  • Safran, Stephen. 1998. "The first century of disability portrayal in film: An analysis of the literature." The Journal of Special Education 31, no. 4: 467-480.
  • ---. 2000. "Using movies to teach students about disabilities." Teaching Exceptional Children 32, no. 3: 44-47.
  • ---. 2001. "Movie images of disability and war: Framing history and political ideology." Remedial and Special Education 22, no. 4: 223-232.
  • Shor, Ira. 2005. "Why teach about social class?" Teaching English in the Two Year College 33, no. 2: 161-170.
  • Simon Birch. 1999. DVD. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Hollywood, CA: Walt Disney
  • Skinner, Emily. 2007. Writing workshop meets critical media literacy: Using magazines and movies as mentor texts. Voices from the Middle 15, no. 2: 30-39.
  • Smith, Claude. 1999. "Finding a warm place for someone we know: The cultural appeal of recent mental patient and asylum films." Journal of Popular Film & Television 27, no. 1: 40-47.
  • Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. 1997. Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Woelders, Adam. 2007. "It makes you think more when you watch things": Scaffolding for historical inquiry using film in the middle school classroom." The Social Studies 98, no. 4: 145-152.
  • Wood, Michael. 1989. America in the movies. New York: Columbia University Press.
Return to Top of Page