"Academy Award-winning films reflect the trend that people with disabilities are becoming more visible members of our schools and society," said Steve Safran, a professor of education at Ohio University, who conducted the study as part of his work on media portrayal of disabilities. "Unfortunately, the high frequency of psychiatric disabilities, the rare appearance of children and youth and the misportrayal of disabilities often gives viewers a skewed perspective that may have little to do with reality."
Safran examined all films that won Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Actress Oscars since the awards ceremony began in 1928. Films that had a major character with a disability traditionally served in special education -- emotional, behavioral, psychiatric, sensory, mental retardation, physical -- were identified.
From 1927 to 1939, only one award, or 2.6 percent of the total, portrayed a person with a disability. From 1990 to 1996, nine films, or 42.8 percent of the total, featured a disabled person in a major role.
Fifty-four percent of the films portrayed psychiatric disturbances, by far the most common type of disability portrayed in the films studied by Safran, followed by physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, mental retardation and autism.
Despite the recent popularity of movies portraying disabilities, Safran says viewers should be careful not to equate the depictions with reality. The preponderance of psychiatric disorders portrayed in film stems from the "imagery of madness," being consistent with violence, suspense and drama, all the elements that titillate moviegoers at the expense of reality, Safran said. One study found that 78 percent of prime time television characters with psychiatric disorders were portrayed as violent, while in reality, the great majority of individuals with mental health problems are not violent.
For example, "Silence of the Lambs," won Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress in 1991 for its depiction of serial killers, and viewers may walk away from the film believing serial killers are relatively commonplace. But statistics indicate there are only about four to five instances of serial killers in the United States per year, according to Safran.
Similarly, although Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of an autistic idiot savant capable of doing intricate mathematical problems quickly in his mind won the Best Actor award for "Rain Man" in 1988, very few autistic people are savants.
"We have seen a dramatic increase in what I call 'disability movies,' but most film critics will tell you there is very little reality basis in the film," said Safran, who teaches a course on disabilities in the media. "But many don't have any basis in reality. Look at 'Forrest Gump.' He's what we call a 'Supercrip.' People love to see these kinds of movies when the downtrodden overcome adversity and barriers. But Gump portrayed a high-functioning mentally retarded person. They don't let people with this sort of disability in the U.S. Army."
Even though films portraying people with disabilities often stray from reality, Safran still uses them in his classes as a tool for examining real issues facing people with impairments in society.
"I try to get my students to reflect on whether there is a reality base," Safran said. "We are a society of film viewers, and special education professionals can use movies to promote critical viewing skills and an understanding of people with special needs."
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Exceptional Children and was funded in part by University College and the College of Education's Department of Teacher Education.