As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter people’s holiday celebrations, many people are finding that watching holiday films is one tradition that can continue. While there has been no meaningful change in the percentage of speaking characters with disabilities in these top-grossing films in the past five years with just 2.3 percent of the 4,451 characters analyzed in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism having a disability, several holiday films are bucking this trend. And for the one-in-four people in the U.S. who have a disability, that means there are more opportunities to see ourselves reflected on screen.
“Christmas Ever After”
A recent premiere on Lifetime, it stars Tony award winner Ali Stroker in the lead role of Izzi Simmons – becoming the network’s first lead actor with a disability. A writer, Simmons is having a severe case of writer’s block when she meets a muse in the B&B’s new owner Matt (Daniel di Tomasso). While the plot is reminiscent of many Lifetime Christmas specials, that is what makes this representation so important. Stroker, a wheelchair user in real life, plays a character who uses a wheelchair. Yet, the movie is not about her disability but about her career and love life – two aspects of life that often are not portrayed on screen for disabled characters. “Christmas Ever After” is streaming now on Lifetime.
“Last Christmas” (2020)
The romantic comedy is based on the famous George Michael song featuring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. The screenplay was written by Emma Thompson, who has had a history of depression for most of her life. Thompson also produced the movie, and plays a character in the film, Petra, who also has chronic depression in the film due to trauma experienced during the Yugoslav Wars. While the main plot of the film centers around a typical Christmas romance (but with a twist ending), the added layer surrounding depression – and how Petra seeks care – plays an important role in helping to normalize the stigma surrounding mental health conditions such as depression. “Last Christmas” is streaming now on HBO Max.
The family Christmas film stars Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader as the daughter and son of Kris Kringle, who passed away five months prior to the film’s events. The film is notable from a disability perspective because it authentically features actress Shaylee Mansfield as a deaf character, and her role is critical to the plot. In her first-ever acting gig, Mansfield played Michelle, a Deaf girl living at a Phoenix homeless shelter with her mom. Michelle helps Noelle not only learn that she can pick up any language, including American Sign Language, but also helps Noelle accept her role, enabling the lead character to find success in her mission.
“It should not matter who Santa is, female or male,” Mansfield said. “My character Michelle believe in Noelle. That was all it took for Noelle to believe in herself. Imagine if that was like that in real life, believing in others and just embracing their true spirit.”
If Mansfield’s character did not exist in the film, it would leave a major plot hole. In addition, this role has helped propel Mansfield’s acting career in other feature films and television series. Noelle is streaming now on Disney Plus.
“Carol of the Bells” (2019)
RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, plays a young man who was adopted as a baby and has a troubled past. He searches for his biological mother and discovers that she has Down syndrome. His mother is played by Andrea Fay Friedman, an actress who has Down syndrome herself and previously was a series regular on “Life Goes On.” This film was directed by Joey Travolta and produced by Inclusion Films, which was started in 2007 by Travolta to teach filmmaking to individuals with developmental disabilities.
“’Carol of the Bells’ is a wonderful story about motherhood and love,” said Gail Williamson, a producer for the film who also represents more than 400 actors with disabilities as a talent agent with KMR. “This film covers so many aspects of what it is to be a mother and how they love their children; including the love of a mother with a disability, a story not often told. Sometimes mothering goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, even if it is well meant. What better time to celebrate motherhood than at Christmas?”
Good portrayals of disability on screen often occur because there are writers and other crew members with disabilities involved. In fact, “Carol of the Bells” was the world’s first feature film with up to 70 percent of the crew having a developmental disability. While a misperception exists that a film’s production would take longer with people with developmental disabilities on the crew or as actors, this film disproves that – as it was made within just two weeks in Bakersfield, Calif. “Carol of the Bells” is available on DVD and on all major digital video-on-demand services.
Disability inclusion is a win-win for studios – driving equity and profitability. As one in five people have a disability and audiences crave authentic content, disability inclusion can be a part of financial success and profitability. In fact, the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion, according to Nielsen.
But including characters with disabilities does not happen by accident. When filmmakers choose to include characters with disabilities, they can help to remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities. That is why it is worth celebrating authentic portrayals like those in these holiday films.
Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President, Communications, of the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. She regularly works with entertainment studios to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience in positions of authority throughout the overall story-telling process, as well as diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen.