Together! 2012 CIC runs the annual international Together! Disability Film Festival, which was founded in 2012 and regularly attracts over 1500 entries from around the globe. This Guide for Filmmakers and Editors is based on our experiences.
It is nearly 30 years since the first law against disability discrimination came into force in the UK (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995). With it, the Traditional Way of thinking about ‘People with Disabilities’ was dismantled, and the Contemporary Way of thinking about ‘Disabled People’ was adopted. Films that avoid traditional stereotypes and embed the Contemporary Way of thinking are much more likely to receive festival screenings and distribution. Read our resource What is Disability? to learn more.
Does your film need to be about disability, just because it focusses on a Disabled person? There are many other stories you can tell about their lives. Taking a different approach may gain you a much bigger audience.
Remember that you have a duty of care to the Disabled people you are filming, whether for a documentary or a drama. Your film may focus on negative aspects of their lives, that are usually only in the background and not impacting on their mood. Plan your interviewing and directing techniques very carefully, and think about what after-care and follow-up support you can offer. Before you start filming a documentary, you also need to consider how to gain ‘informed consent’ from everyone taking part (or their representatives). And think about how much personal and private medical information is really essential to your film. Disabled people have the same right to privacy as everyone else.
Involve Disabled people as closely as you can in the making of your film, including as crew.
Keep your story concise. It has always been far easier to obtain distribution for any film if it’s less than 15 minutes long. Now, with TikTok and Insta, it is also very hard to keep the audience’s attention.
Find a lead character who is Disabled. Don’t focus on their non-disabled family members, teachers or support workers.
Make sure that the Disabled person or people who are the subject of the film tells their own story. Don’t use non-disabled characters to tell someone else’s story unless the Disabled person is non-verbal. Even then, there are many ways of showing their actions and responses and life from their point of view.
Avoid ‘cripping up’ when casting dramas. Non-disabled actors fail to convince anyone who has lived experience of Disabled people with similar conditions, and this will severely limit your distribution opportunities. You will also, of course, be taking away work from Disabled actors. Disabled actors are found all around the world, both trained and ‘born’, and come in all shapes and sizes. Actors love to act, even when they are living with life-limiting and terminal conditions.
If you need to make a film about a non-disabled person in a disability setting, perhaps for a charity that is funding workers, let the Disabled people who are also part of the story tell it. Don’t use a non-disabled narrator – this just reinforces a traditional perception of Disabled people as being passive and invalid and in need of rescue.
Think carefully about what kind of film you are trying to make – will it be positive or negative? Miserable stories reinforce traditional ways of thinking about ‘people with disabilities’, but don’t reflect the reality of Disabled people’s lives. Miserable films also reinforce the status quo, by showing it as inevitable that ‘people with disabilities’ will have unhappy lives, rather than social and political change being required. When miserable films are used for fundraising purposes, they are less likely to succeed than when the joy in someone’s life is forefronted. Generally, miserable stories are not going to receive widespread distribution, because they don’t have audience appeal.
If your aim of your film is to educate, make sure you have educated yourself thoroughly first, and before you begin. Don’t go on a voyage of discovery and assume your audience will follow – your audience will always include people who are already educated about the subject of your film. Even if you are a Disabled filmmaker, you cannot assume that everyone with the same condition will have had the same experiences; in any case, every Disabled person’s experiences are different.
Disabled people are not extraordinary for leading ordinary lives. Films will not succeed that simply observe Disabled people. These films also risk being compared to the Freak Show performances of the 19th and 20th centuries, where Disabled people were observed doing ordinary things in the same enclosures as zoos. Recording the lives of individual Disabled people is very important, but if there is no deeper story, an oral history approach will ensure that your film is still valid in 100 years time.
Disabled people are sexual beings just like everybody else. Stories that acknowledge and celebrate this are generally welcome. However, stories that objectify and fetishise Disabled people, and stories that begin with the premise that Disabled people aren’t usually sexual, are likely to offend a significant proportion of your potential audience.
Disabled people’s lives are not focussed on disability. Even people with very high support needs still engage with their family, friends, community and culture (and indeed may be in employment). This, not disability, is the focus of their days, although it may not immediately be apparent to you as the filmmaker. Films are much more compelling to watch when the Disabled character is shown as a whole, rather than being defined by their medical label.
Disabled people do not exist to inspire others. ‘Inspiration porn’ is increasingly being called out by Disabled people – you can find out more and how to avoid it here.
There is no evidence whatsoever to support the traditional stereotype of a Disabled person’s character being warped by their impairment. Certainly someone may experience mental health difficulties as a result of life changes, including discrimination and rejection, but this is entirely different. Stories that revolve around this stereotype are very unlikely to succeed.
Be careful to avoid other forms of stereotyping. Your film will not succeed if it includes racial and LGBTQI+ stereotypes, however carefully you have thought about disability in isolation.
Don’t use background music unless this is directly relevant to the film. ‘Slideshow’ music is designed to be used instead of voices, and when it is used behind voices instead, it signifies that the person speaking isn’t important enough to be listened to on their own. This reinforces stereotypes of Deaf and Disabled people as not being worth listening to – it also signifies that your film isn’t worth watching. In addition, using background music that is not specifically designed for your film behind voices will always make it more difficult for people who are hard of hearing to understand.
Think very carefully before using piano or violin music – ‘sad music’. Is the film a tragedy, or is it simply about Deaf and/or Disabled people? Make sure that any composers and sound artists involved in your production understand the Contemporary Way of thinking about Deaf and Disabled People, and aren’t working to the outdated Traditional Way of thinking about ‘People with Disabilities’. Reframing a positive film as a tragedy will severely limit your distribution opportunities.
Don’t use sound that is designed to mimic a Disabled person’s experience of the world if this will impact negatively on Disabled audience members. For example, if you design sound that is designed to mimic someone being overwhelmed by noise, or hearing certain sounds more sharply, you are likely to create a very negative experience for neurodivergent audience members and hearing aid users. The same, of course, goes for lighting effects, which may also fail the ‘broadcast safe’ test and remove television as a distribution option for your film.
Remember that your audience will always include Deaf and Disabled people – 16% of the world’s population are Disabled, rising to 20-25% in countries with older populations. They will be quick to spot any lack of authenticity or respect within your film.
When thinking about the content of your film, remember that the inclusion of guns, knives, drug-taking etc will impact on people with trauma-related and other conditions, as well as making it unsuitable for younger audiences. Consider if that content is necessary, or could be shown in a different way. This will maximise your distribution opportunities.
In order to cater for Deaf and Disabled audience members, you need to ensure that you have produced captioned and audio-described versions of your film. Blind, visually impaired, Deaf and hard of hearing people all enjoy films as much as non-disabled people, and in many countries they will have the legal right to access them. Many people with full hearing are now also choosing to watch with captions as the norm. NB: Filmmakers are always best placed to provide audio-described versions of their films, working with professionals wherever budgets allow. Only the filmmakers know exactly what is happening in a scene, and what is important to the action and what is not.
It is important to be clear that Disability is lived experience of: long-term health conditions; significant physical or cultural differences (many Deaf people regard themselves as a cultural minority); neurodiversity; learning difficulties; or impairment. That lived experience includes the social, environmental and attitudinal barriers that create Disability. If you try to make a film using impairment as metaphor, it will lack authenticity and be extremely restricted in its distribution options.
Disability is also not a metaphor for other aspects of the body and the human condition. Each year the Together! Disability Film Festival receives films for consideration that highlight important issues and stories, but have nothing to do with Disability and don’t include identifiable Disabled people. This takes away valuable time and resources from qualifying films, so we kindly ask you not to submit them.
This Guide is endorsed by: