There are more than 6 million Canadians over the age of 15 who have a disability. And although that’s a large percentage of Canadians, disability inclusion and representation is still lacking. Although there are several shows that include characters with disabilities, sometimes the best intentions of representation can fall flat with viewers, especially those who have exceptionalities. For example, many would prefer that characters with a certain disability are played by actors with that disability, but this unfortunately doesn’t happen often.
Sometimes, diversity in casting hasn’t been an issue, but diversity in the writing room has. This can lead to disability being tokenized and giving disabled characters a lack of agency. While non-disabled actors and writers can display deep understanding and empathy toward those who are disabled, they still lack a lived experience that is necessary for authentic storytelling.
However, there are some great choices of things to watch and read that authentically represent disability. We’ve compiled a list of our favourite documentaries, movies, books, and tv shows that feature disabled characters or have disabled writers.
People with disabilities represent a wide variety of people across a spectrum of gender, race, socio-economic statuses, and abilities – therefore, there will be many who have had very different experiences than the ones depicted in these stories. It’s always a great idea to seek out media with a variety of perspectives to learn as much as you can about the world’s largest minority group.
Watch on: Netflix
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution covers the lives of the campers at Camp Jened, an inclusive camp for teens with disabilities, in the 1970s. Those who were able to spend time at Camp Jened continued to be influenced by their time at camp throughout their lives. Many of them went on to advocate for disability rights, leading to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Watch on: Netflix
Rising Phoenix tells the story of the Paralympic Games and follows the lives of nine Paralympic athletes as they prepare for the games. As the third biggest sporting event on the planet, the Paralympics continues to change the way the world thinks about disability, diversity & human potential.
Watch online now!
This short documentary was a project by Samuel Habib and his father about his life as a young man with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and his journey navigating adulthood. The entire lead cast and most of the production crew of this film are people with disabilities. In My Disability Roadmap, Samuel travels through the United States to meet with various disability activists to learn from their experiences.
Watch on: Apple TV
CODA is a remake of French-Belgian film, La Famille Bélier, about a child of deaf adults (CODA) and the only hearing member of her family. CODA casted deaf actors who use American Sign Language (ASL) to play deaf characters. CODA won numerous awards including Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards.
Watch on: Netflix/Amazon Prime Video
Peanut Butter Falcon is a modern retelling of the Huckleberry Finn story, focusing on Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from his state-run care facility. In his escape, he befriends a man named Tyler who helps him on his journey to travel to a wrestling school. Zak is played by Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome.
Watch on: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, The Roku Channel, Paramount Plus, and more
Although these are horror movies (the only ones on our list, we promise), they have great representation. The story in both films centres around a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where monsters have taken over. The family’s eldest child, Regan, is deaf. While she had used a cochlear implant, it no longer works in the first film. Regan’s family’s use of ASL gives them a huge advantage in hiding from the monsters. Millicent Simmonds, who plays Regan in both films, is deaf and helped shape the direction of the film by giving her input.
Watch on: Netflix
Atypical is a comedy-drama series focused on the life of teenaged Sam, who has autism. While the show received mostly positive reviews after its first season, many were disappointed by the lack of actors and writers on the show with disabilities. The show executives took this feedback to heart, and by season two had hired writers and actors with autism to better represent the community. Viewers felt the show was much more authentic after the change.
Watch on: Netflix
Special is also a comedy-drama series available on Netflix. It is a semi-autobiographical account of the lead star, Ryan O’Connell’s, life. Ryan, a gay man with cerebral palsy, depicts his journey in pursuing new friendships, relationships, and self-sufficiency through Special. The show is based on O'Connell's memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.
Watch on: Netflix
If you’re a comic book lover, Raising Dion might be the show for you! Raising Dion follows the story of Nicole, who raises her son Dion alone after her husband’s death. As Dion starts to gain mysterious powers, Nicole tries to uncover the mystery and keep her son safe. Although it’s not a huge part of the storyline, Dion has ADHD and chronic asthma. His best friend Esperanza, played by Sammi Haney, has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. Raising Dion does a great job tackling issues like racism and ableism.
From Penguin Random House: "Drawing on a collection of original essays, previously published work, conversations, graphics, photos, commissioned art by disabled and Asian American artists, and more, Alice uses her unique talent to share an impressionistic scrapbook of her life as an Asian American disabled activist, community organizer, media maker, and dreamer."
From Duke University Press: "In Black Disability Politics Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present. Schalk shows how Black people have long engaged with disability as a political issue deeply tied to race and racism."
From Temple University Press: "Just Care is Akemi Nishida’s thoughtful examination of care injustice and social justice enabled through care. Nishida analyzes the challenges people negotiate whether they are situated as caregivers, receivers, or both. Also illuminated is how people with disabilities come together to assemble community care collectives and bed activism (resistance and visions emerging from the space of bed) to reimagine care as a key element for social change."
From Penguin Random House: "Demystifying Disability is a friendly handbook on the important disability issues you need to know about. Authored by celebrated disability rights advocate, speaker, and writer Emily Ladau, this practical, intersectional guide offers all readers a welcoming place to understand disability as part of the human experience."
From rebekahtaussig.com: "Disability affects all of us, directly or indirectly, at one point or another. By exploring this truth in poignant and lyrical essays, Rebekah Taussig illustrates the need for more stories and more voices to understand the diversity of humanity. Sitting Pretty challenges us as a society to be patient and vigilant, practical and imaginative, kind and relentless, as we set to work to write an entirely different story."