New film traces disability and activism

July 25, 2017

The battle for positive portrayal and attitudes towards disability is not new. In fact, it has been going on for many decades, taking its part in the great protest movements that started in the 1960s. A new film, Defiant Lives, traces the disability activism movement from its inception.

Conceived and directed by Australian filmmaker Sarah Barton, the film includes many Australian activists, past and present, and current commentators on attitudes towards people with disability. Barton has a long track record in disability issues, including Channel 31's No Limits, which was hosted by Stella Young.

One of the Australians featuring in the film is Dr George Taleporos who says that the stereotypes of people with a disability were boosted by the media portrayal at the time.

"Disability is never represented from a human rights perspective. It's represented through a lens of pity or stories about overcoming the odds. The hero who, despite their hideous impairment, was able to get into the Paralympics. It's all about the hero and pity narrative. Never about the disability rights narrative."

This was particularly clear in the very popular telethons of the era.

The most notorious was probably American comedian Jerry Lewis for his condescending Jerry Lewis MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) Labor Day Telethons that lasted from 1966 until 2014 (although Lewis himself stopped hosting them in 2011). Part his infamy is from his ill-informed musings on what it was like to be disabled, including an article in Parade magazine where he imagined himself as a person with muscular dystrophy and describes himself as being "half a person".

Defiant Lives also includes an Australian telethon from the 1970s, featuring some big stars in TV at the time such as Barry Crocker, John Farnham and Pat McDonald. The approach is typical, smiling for the cameras with What the World Needs Now is Love playing in the background. The on-screen image includes the helpful text message "Happiness is helping spastic children".

The film shows that following the wave of protests around such telethons charities started to drop this method of fundraising and awareness raising.

Given that the film includes commentary on media portrayal of people with disability Barton says she tried not to fall into the trap of making sure all disabilities met their "quotas" of on-screen presence. This led to some criticism about the absence of hearing-impaired people, among others.

"In a way it kind of goes against the premise of the film, which is that regardless of what your disability is, these issues apply," Barton said, addressing the criticism around lack of hearing-impaired people.

"These issues of social barriers really do apply across the board. I never once went, 'Oh, I haven't got enough people with cerebral palsy' or 'I haven't got enough blind people or deaf people.' I was not concerned with what people's impairments were. I was concerned with their role in the bigger picture of the disability rights movement."

Another aim was to ensure that Defiant Lives would appeal to general audiences. This included dramatic footage of people with disability protesting by chaining themselves to buses and throwing themselves off wheelchairs. 

"That's when I knew I had a good film on my hand when I found that," said Barton. "I wanted an audience not necessary connected (to disability) to see it. I want the film to open their minds to something they haven't necessarily thought about."

Defiant Lives screens from 31 July 2017 in ACT, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and is available for on-demand screening as well.

Alex Varley, CEO

More content like this

Dr George Taleporos appears in You Can't Ask That with some episodes covering disability portrayal

The Access All Areas disability film festival is touring later in 2017

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