Why You Should Watch These Great Disability Documentaries

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I watched the first of many disability documentaries in 2005, about five years after I became a wheelchair user. The Netflix DVD arrived in the mail and I popped it into the player. It was called Murderball. Frankly, I didn’t have high hopes for it. The name felt dramatic and overly macho, like it was already trying to compensate for something. I also was worried to find out what kind of lens these wheelchair users were going to be seen through. Would they be portrayed with respect and realness, or would the film start swerving too sharply into inspiration territory?

I pressed play and moved close to my bed, ready to transfer into it. The first scene started: A paraplegic man in his wheelchair, changing from pants into shorts. I froze, my eyes glued to the screen. The man finished getting dressed and then wheeled out of his room.

I was riveted. I barely moved my body for the next hour and a half, my transfer forgotten as people who looked like me filled the screen. I had never seen so many wheelchair users on screen at one time before. I felt like I was gorging on something I hadn’t even known I was starving for. My worries about what the film would be like were swamped by how good it felt to be immersed in a world of media where I didn’t feel like I was a square peg fitting myself into a round hole. I thought, Why didn’t I start watching this stuff earlier?

Read about why watching disability documentaries is a good idea, or jump straight to my reviews!

wheelchair going on bus - Disability Documentary

I watched my first disability documentary in 2005... I was riveted. I barely moved my body for the next hour and a half, my transfer forgotten as people who looked like me filled the screen.

Why Watch Disability Documentaries?

1. A Sense of Community

For many disabled people, spending time around our peers on a large scale is a rare thing. There are no disability neighborhoods or areas of town, no disability bars or comedy clubs, no salons or restaurants. This generally applies to media, as well. There may be a person with a disability on TV occasionally, but this is uncommon enough that it is still notable, and they are usually surrounded by the able-bodied. Watching a film in which the majority of the people have disabilities leaves me feeling seen, like I really do have a solid place of my own in society instead of simply dangling from its edges.

Disability documentaries can also give us a chance to see other disabled people that don’t look like us at all. At times we can get frustrated with society for its ignorance of our specific disability – and while that is a valid feeling, it’s important to remember that we ourselves are not well-versed in every disability, either. For example, as a person with a spinal cord injury I know very little about ALS (among many other disabilities). It’s a good reminder to have a bit of compassion for able-bodied people who may stumble during interactions with us. What we learn from disability documentaries may also help us treat our disabled comrades with more grace than we might have before.

community in disability documentaries
Doing Dishes in wheelchair

2. Making Everyday Life Easier

Some of the most valuable things people with disabilities can learn from interacting with each other, either through in-person exchanges, social media, or traditional media, are ideas about new and better ways to live. Some people with disabilities may simply get a diagnosis at a doctor’s office and then be sent on their way with little guidance as to how to conduct their life going forward. It can be stressful to be alone with the question, “Where do I go from here?”

Watching disability documentaries gives us a chance to see how other people with disabilities live: how they get dressed; put on their makeup; get from point A to point B. We begin to see possibilities; the gears in our heads start to turn. More than that, a very important concept begins to take hold in our minds: there is more than one way to do things.

These documentaries can help even if we’ve been disabled for years, because we can get stuck in routines that may not be serving us well. We may discover someone else performing a task using a life hack we had never thought of before, one that gets the task done with much less effort than we had been expending.

3. Occupational Therapists and Teaching ADLs through Disability Documentaries

I feel strongly that disability documentaries should play a role in occupational therapy. Clinical/instructional ADL (Activities of Daily Living) videos are helpful for OT clients but may leave a couple components unfulfilled – warmth and human connection. Documentaries can provide these and help people see that the repetitive tasks they’re practicing are a part of something bigger: a way to reenter a life of activity and possibilities.

Motivation is essential to success, and watching other disabled people move through their lives with confidence can give OT clients the motivation they need to keep moving forward. They may see disabled people on screen easily doing life skills similar to what they’re learning and think: If those people have reached a point where it’s second nature, maybe I can get there, too.

4. Power To the People

Watching disability documentaries can be a great way to learn about disability history, such as what life was like for people with disabilities before accessibility legislations were passed; the struggles to get those laws passed; and the changes that society goes through regarding how disabled people are perceived and treated.

Seeing how accessibility legislation goes from a desire to a reality is especially valuable. When I read through disability communities online, I often see frustration about the state of the disability rights movement and the reality of disabled people in general. People often express feelings of helplessness due to simply not knowing where to start, and some feel a sense of defeat before they even to begin. It is as if they feel that every door is already closed to them, and every action towards freedom they take is a Sisyphean feat doomed to failure.

Living with a disability can mean there are days where you move one step forward, two steps back. Many minority groups experience this along the road to freedom. One thing that helps make it bearable is learning about those who came before you, the ones who fought for the rights you have now and how they did it. Unfortunately, our society does not celebrate disability history — its heroes and its events — as it does with other groups. We hold no place in our collective memories for Ed RobertsJudy Heumann, or Justin Dart, Jr.; our schools do not teach the story of the Section 504 sit-in or the Denver Gang of Nineteen bus protest. We are left to search out this information on our own — if we even know what to look for in the first place.

judy heumann disability documentary
watching disability documentaries

5. Disability Documentaries Are Simply Good

Let’s face it, many disabled people are funny. When you deal with as many difficult, embarrassing, and painful things as we do, you often either have to laugh about it or cry about it (sometimes it’s both.) Gallows humor abounds. If you have a disability but don’t get to hang around with many (or any) disabled people, seeing others who really understand the foundation of your humor can be incredibly cathartic. Not everyone finds humor in their situation, though, and that’s OK. Different people deal with hardship in different ways.

Personally, I’m glad to see in these films the wide range of ways that people with disabilities live their lives. Some are content, leading dance groups and planning families; others are grieving, uncomfortable with their bodies and trying to carve out new identities. Some are successful in love; other are not. Some are activists; some are Paralympians; some are unemployed and unhappy about it. If there were only success stories then these films would run the risk of portraying people with disabilities as flat, one-dimensional characters whose main purpose is to make the able-bodied world feel good inside. Instead, we are shown as full people, in service only to ourselves and those we care for – as it should be.

Reviewing my All Time Favorite Disability Documentaries. 

I’ll be reviewing some of my favorite disability documentaries: Murderball and Crip Camp; Drunk History: Judith Heumann’s Fight for Disability Rights and Take a Look At This Heart: Love and Sexuality in the Disability Community.

For plenty of things to watch related to disability, the website Media and Disability Resources has amassed an impressive list of documentaries as well as TV shows and movies.

Let’s dive in!

Murderball (2005)

Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

Watching the documentary Murderball almost twenty years after I had watched it the first time was definitely a different experience. I have seen many films and video clips on disability topics since then (including some great disability documentaries mentioned in this article), so this documentary didn’t have the initial punch for me as it did all those years ago, particularly the opening scene. Still, I enjoyed the scene for the impact it does create through its simplicity: The shot of Mark Zupan, a quad rugby player, deftly changing from pants to shorts while seated in his wheelchair is shown with no voiceover or music to tell us how to feel about it. It’s just Mark, doing something that is obviously ordinary for him but likely quite novel for most of the audience — and that’s where the tension comes in. “Welcome to my world,” the shot says. “It’s a place where things are both familiar and unfamiliar, and it only gets more intense from here on out.”

It’s Personal

Murderball chronicles Mark and other wheelchair users as they move through the paces to eventually become part of the quad rugby team that represents the U.S. in the Paralympic games of 2004. The fiercest competition by far is between the U.S. and Canada, and not only for game reasons – it’s also personal. The coach of the Canadian team, Joe, was once part of the U.S. team but was cut after several years. Joe did not take this well, seeing it as a slight and a slap in the face. Full of resentment yet still wanting to be involved in the quad rugby world, he “defected” and began coaching the Canadians.

Whenever the U.S. and Canada face off, on whatever court or level, it is heated. Much trash-talking and throbbing face-veins ensue. The fact that the U.S. team wipes the floor with every opponent almost every time and has for many years only irritates Joe more. The only team that ever seems to beat them is Canada – and they don’t do it often. Certainly not at the Paralympics.

You might expect the U.S. team to be cocky, but they come off as just short of that. They’re well aware of their reputation – and they’re also aware of the pressure it puts on them. They take the game just as seriously as the Canadian team. They don’t want to be the first U.S. team to lose at the Paralympic games in years.

It Takes Time

The filmmakers also follow Kevin, a young man freshly injured in a motocross accident, as he works his way through rehabilitation and the emotional challenges one encounters when one becomes paralyzed. When Kevin comes home for the first time since his injury, he is overwhelmed by how much his life has changed.

When I first watched Kevin’s homecoming almost twenty years ago, I felt grief well-up inside of my chest. At the time I had only been injured a few years, and my own emotional wounds were still fresh. Seeing Kevin’s reaction reminded me of how I had felt when I had come home, how the ghosts of my past self surrounded me and threw into stark relief just how much I had lost. All of my possessions seemed to belong to someone else, someone achingly naïve I could never be again, no matter how much I wanted to.

Watching it again today I can still feel the echoes of that loss, but it’s mostly been replaced by compassion for Kevin. Seventeen years later I can sense how much I’ve moved on and how that allows me to extend empathy for him instead of being overwhelmed by my own then-raw experience. I want to tell Kevin that what he’s feeling is normal, and part of the grieving process. That someday it won’t be so painful.

Mark is someone else who knows how difficult this time can be and does what he can to help ease the transition for others. He visits the hospital where Kevin is completing his rehab to show him and several other patients videos about quad rugby. Their faces light up as they watch the rough-and-tumble world of wheelchairs built like battering rams crashing into one another and players slamming to the ground and quickly recovering. For Kevin — who says that since his injury he feels like he’s been treated like he’s made of glass — it is a breath of fresh air. Mark lets Kevin roll around in a fully armored and battle-worn rugby wheelchair he’s brought with him; by the end of the visit, they have a hard time getting Kevin out of it.

The Blind Spots

Murderball has its problematic areas. There’s no attention given to women in wheelchairs at all. I may have seen one in the background of a shot. I’m not necessarily asking for female rugby players, but the lack of women’s voices in general gives the film a hypermasculine feel I found a bit alienating at times. Or maybe my feeling of alienation comes from the way the players talk about women behind closed doors: with a crudeness that perhaps they’re expecting the viewer to excuse simply because the men saying these things are in wheelchairs. In addition to being sexist, it comes off as compensation for the emasculation that society tries to pin on them. “Look at us,” they seem to be saying. “We’re as gross as any able-bodied man is.” Perhaps the men in Murderball think they can’t afford to be sensitive, i.e., respectful, in a society that already sees them as broken.

However, they don’t seem to see the irony in seeing others as broken. One player tells the group about going to a wedding and being introduced to someone who said, “Oh yes, I heard about you – you’re in the Special Olympics!” He laments that in that moment he went from being in the Paralympics and being “the man” to being an “f-ing retard.” He quickly backtracks – sort of – by saying he doesn’t want to diminish what the Special Olympians had accomplished, but that he himself wasn’t competing “for hugs, you know?”

Should attitudes like these be given a pass due to the fact that this documentary was filmed in 2005? I’ll leave that up to the viewer.

I believe there is plenty of value in Murderball – at the time the Academy Awards committee thought so, too, nominating it for their “Best Documentary Feature” award (beat out by March of the Penguins). I don’t know if I agree that it’s Academy-Award-worthy, but simply watching people who are generally seen as fragile throwing their bodies at each other and crashing wheelchairs together like unhinged bumper cars is exhilarating. It’s a disability film; it’s a sports film; it’s a film about moving forward – sometimes at high speeds. Disability documentaries are a great tool to communicate the struggles people with disabilities can experience and show the fight to overcome those struggles, and Murderball is no different. Being a sports film, it also brings a lot of excitement to screen at the same time.

Crip Camp (2020)

Produced and directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht

Crip Camp should be required watching for any person with a disability. Heck, it should be watched by everyone, disabled or not. It provides an intimate look at what it’s like to live a life of feeling separate and different; how a person’s view of themselves can change once that separateness is erased; and how that shift can effect change at a much broader, societal level.

A lot of the film’s early footage is shaky and a bit blurry — the recordings of Camp Jened weren’t intended for a full-fledged film and they have a raw, unvarnished quality to them that is a refreshing change from the slick documentary styles that are more common today. There’s a home-movie type of feeling, with smiles, waves, and playfully annoyed responses to being caught on camera, interspersed with more serious moments. Knowing how important and life-changing this camp experience was for the attendees, I felt a sense of gratefulness for being given a small look into what it was like for them.

Camp Consciousness

Crip Camp begins in 1971, when the counter-culture influence was in full swing at Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities that had been established in 1951 in the Catskills Mountains of southeastern New York. Rules were loose; decisions were communal; and everybody’s voice was listened to and respected, even those whose voices were so affected by their disability that few could understand them. Those that did – often people with similar disabilities – acted as translators.

What might it feel like if you had a place to go where you melted into the crowd, the anonymity lifting a burden from your shoulders you didn’t even know the true weight of until it was gone? At Camp Jened, disabled people were able to feel normal. And if they were normal, regular people, why were they treated so differently, so poorly by society? Weren’t their rights just as important as everyone else’s?

After they left the camp, many of the attendees went on to join or form groups that fought for disability civil rights. Crip Camp follows both ex-campers and counselors as they fought for the regulation of Section 504 in the United States, an act that greatly advanced accessibility nation-wide.

The Protest

Section 504 was part of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and when it was first written it proved to be so vague that any court could interpret terms such as “disability” and “discrimination” any way they chose, essentially making Section 504 useless. Disability rights activists wanted it regulated and clarified so that there was a standard that people and organizations were beholden to. This culminated in a sit-in of 150 people at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco that lasted 25 days. It holds the record as the longest sit-in of a federal building in U.S. history.

If you’re thinking that the logistics of 150 people with various disabilities and little resources doing a sit-in sounds complicated, you’d be right. The way the protestors innovated and adapted – even when authority figures tried to squeeze them out — is impressive. Crip Camp deserves to be in the list of great disability documentaries, and covers one of the greatest fights for justice in history.

Sweet Success

Their protest was a success and Section 504 became the farthest-reaching disability rights legislation until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991. For some of the activists, being at Camp Jened gave them a heady influx of respect and independence at just the right identity-forming age to solidify in them a sense of self, helping propel them into lives they might not have even thought were options for them otherwise. Crip Camp does a fantastic job of showing the journeys of people that felt isolated and ostracized to experiencing acceptance – at least from their peers – and how that can change a person’s perception of themselves and their own capabilities.

These Disability Documentary Explore Intimate Topics

The intimate topics such as sexuality and romance, and the harsh truth such as fighting for equal access, need to be approached with the right attitude. These documentaries do a great job, wether serious or funny, at exploring topics that pack an emotional punch. It’s important to broach these subjects openly and head-on. I think these disability documentaries do just that.

For more things to watch, the website Media and Disability Resources has amassed an impressive list of documentaries as well as TV shows and movies.

Drunk History: Judith Heumann’s Fight for Disability Rights (feat. Ali Stroker) (2018)

Directed by Jeremy Konner

While Crip Camp does an excellent job of covering in detail the fight disability civil rights advocates put up for the regulation of Section 504, not everyone has the time or stamina for a two-hour documentary. Enter Comedy Central’s Drunk History series, where Derek Waters gets tipsy with various comedians and then has them recreate historical events for him, with hilarious results. In this eight-minute video, comedian Suzi Barrett tells the story of Section 504 while focusing on Judith Heumann, Camp Jened alumna and founder of civil rights organization Disabled in Action.

The Real Deal

I often recommend this video to people wanting to learn more about disability rights history for several reasons. It’s funny, and I know I enjoy humor in my education because it keeps me engaged. The story itself is treated with the awe and respect it deserves, despite the storytellers being plastered. Many of the actors used in the video – even the extras – have disabilities: The Tony-Award-winning actor playing Huemann, Ali Stroker, has a spinal cord injury; Sean Berdy, playing activist Frank Bowe, is deaf; and there’s an appearance from Lauren Potter of Glee fame, who has Down syndrome, as a woman in a ventilator. Having characters with disabilities being played by actors with disabilities is important – not simply for the sake of authenticity, but so that people with disabilities see members of their community on screen. Media representation affects whether we feel accepted as part of our society.

Some might not think of listing Drunk History among great disability documentaries, but I believe it fits.

Take a Look At This Heart: Love and Sexuality in the Disability Community (2019)

Directed, produced, and edited by Ben Duffy

The question director Ben Duffy asks during the opening of Take a Look At This Heart: Love and Sexuality in the Disability Community is profound: “If our disability is permanent, then when – and how – will we ever learn to love and be loved permanently?” He’s not asking how do we find love, but how will we allow ourselves to let ourselves be loved, and to give love in return? Many of us carry emotional wounds in addition to physical ones. They come from many places: loss of function; poor treatment by society, friends, or family; romantic rejection because of our bodies that we cannot change. These wounds can leave some of us closed off, with armored hearts that we feel we’ve built out of necessity. Others reach out despite – or because of – these hurts, longing for human connection. Duffy’s film explores how several different people with disabilities navigate romance, self-esteem, sex, and true love.

Sexual Healing

One of the things I enjoyed most about this documentary was the frankness with which the subjects talked about sex. I have seen many videos about sex and disability that have been produced by hospitals and rehabilitation organizations, and they always have a strange quality to them. They are presenting in a clinical way a subject that is anything but, and it creates an uncanny valley feeling — the actors are recreating something that is close to what we know to be sex but is off just enough to give us the heebie-jeebies. In Take a Look At This Heart, people open up about their sex lives as if they were talking to a close friend: relaxed, with honesty and a good dose of humor.

Angela, a quadriplegic woman, demonstrates several different sexual positions from her own bed with the help of her able-bodied boyfriend, the two of them giggling and nuzzling along the way. AJ, an electric wheelchair user, gives us the intimate lowdown on his year-long journey with a sex surrogate.

If you’ve read my Sex and Spinal Cord Injury: A Guide for Women article, you’ll know that after my spinal cord injury one of the first questions on my mind was, “Will I still be able to have orgasms?” In this documentary, at least two of the subjects had a similar experience. Angela’s first thought was, “What about sex?” Keith said his first thought wasn’t about his legs, but his “manhood.” I’m guessing that many people have similar immediate concerns when they become injured.

Sadly, I’m not sure that everyone in the medical community really understands the gravity of these concerns for many people who become paralyzed. Some rehab hospitals provide sex education after SCI but some do not, or the education they provide is minimal or is only focused on fertility. I feel that occupational therapists in particular could be helpful with sex education. Their job is to teach life skills – “activities of daily living” — and sex certainly qualifies as that, doesn’t it?

Welcome, Stranger

Take a Look At This Heart doesn’t shy away from discussions about emotional vulnerability, which can happen when documenting the sex lives of people with disabilities. The subject of disability sex is still such an unknown in society that it must be tempting for those behind the camera to get lost in the novelty of the physicality of it all. Duffy, however, does not fall into this trap – “heart” is in the title, after all.

Ali Stroker, a paraplegic who starred in the Drunk History video on Section 504 reviewed above, stumbled with emotional intimacy even though she had an active sex life. She wasn’t afraid of sharing her body, she said, but of letting someone know “what it’s like to really be me.” Being a wheelchair user and having paralysis can be incredibly challenging, mentally and physically. That being said, as the years go by you start to get used to the difficulties. With a new partner, they’re seeing your life with fresh eyes.

Bringing a new person into your life, likely someone who has no experience with disability, can be daunting. They are entering your world, with its new lingo and your different body, they are seeing the physical landscape around them in a new way, and they are becoming privy to a new social strata with its quirks and discriminations. All of this, and then there are your own personal experiences you bring to the table, how you have been shaped, and your fears and desires. Living life as a person with a disability can be a unique, complicated, and intense journey. Inviting someone into that kaleidoscopic world is a risk – but there can be no intimacy without vulnerability.

I Don’t Need Any Help

Chelsea, who is paraplegic, is dating an able-bodied man named Jay. In the beginning of their relationship, she said, she tried to be super independent – “Don’t worry, I got it, I got it!” – to show Jay that she didn’t need his help. This is one facet of what some of us in the disability community call “Supercrip Syndrome.” Chelsea was pushing herself harder than she might have normally due to a feeling of insecurity and fear that if Jay saw her as someone who needed to be taken care of, he would be put off. As their communication and intimacy deepened, however, she learned that he wanted to care for her, just as she wanted to care for him – “It’s natural,” she said, to feel that way about people you’re close to.

And Jay feels that closeness deeply with Chelsea. “People don’t understand that I’m not in a relationship with a girl in a wheelchair, I’m in a relationship with an amazing woman who just happens to be in a wheelchair,” he says, tears of gratefulness and pride welling up in his eyes.

No Going Back

Take a Look At This Heart acknowledges that we all deal with our disabilities differently because we aren’t all the same. Angela, the quadriplegic woman from before is also a model; she says of her condition, “I’m still the same Angela. Yes, I’m in a different vessel, I’m not gonna be able to sashay down a runway like I used to, but I haven’t changed.” Angela seems to take her accident in stride, saying that she had already experienced numerous difficulties in life and sustaining a spinal cord injury was one more to add to the list. She had confidence that she could get through it. This confidence radiates off of her; no doubt it was one of the things that drew her boyfriend to her.

Gretchen, who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound, feels differently about her situation. “It’s super difficult to go to your own funeral, day by day, and [accept] that that part is gone, and that now you are receiving a new life.” Though her grief over her losses is apparent, she speaks with a strength that seems to come from deep within, reminiscent of royalty. There’s a sense that there is an ocean of feeling just under the surface of what she chooses to share with the filmmakers. Although her girlfriend doesn’t speak much to the camera, it’s apparent that she has respect and a type of reverence for Gretchen.

Both Angela and Gretchen found love, each while in very different places in their disability journeys. By portraying this, Duffy is helping to dispel the harmful idea that disabled people have to “not let their disability get them down” to be seen as a viable partner. Being disabled can be hard – and if we cannot be honest about that with the one we love, who can we be honest about it with?

Take a Look At This Heart approaches disability and love with candor and sensitivity, allowing us to meet its subject where they’re at instead of insisting on silver linings that may or may not be there. The film creates a mosaic of disability love in a place where there is often just a blank canvas. Here’s hoping it will inspire more filmmakers and documentarians to explore this area of humanity.

I hope these reviews have piqued your curiosity enough to start exploring the world of disability documentaries. Again, the website Media and Disability Resources has amassed an impressive list of documentaries as well as TV shows and movies. Happy hunting.

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