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94th Annual Academy Award Disabled Nominees Break New Ground for Inclusion

Los Angeles, March 10 – Excitement continues to grow for the 94th annual Academy Awards as several disabled performers and disability-inclusive films have already broken new ground by being nominated.

CODA Makes History for Deaf Representation

A still from CODA with actors in the movie standing and applauding

A still from CODA. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Arguably the biggest news is that CODA has been nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder). In addition, Troy Kotsur has made history as the first male Deaf actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film sheds an intimate light on Deaf culture and being a CODA (child of deaf adult) using authentic deaf actors and incorporating deaf professionals in behind-the-camera roles throughout the development and production of the film.

CODA first broke records when Apple acquired the distribution rights for a whopping $25 million out of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, CODA has won numerous awards including two Screen Actors Guild Awards, an NAACP Image Award, three Hollywood Critics Association Film Awards, and a Film Independent Spirit Award. “If there were any lingering doubts as to whether authenticity sells, they were put to rest with the stunning success of this film,” said Delbert Whetter, a RespectAbility board member who is a Deaf film executive. Several individuals from “CODA” joined Whetter and RespectAbility for a conversation presented fully in ASL with interpreters held on Sundance’s digital Main Street platform during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

“Including a disabled character – and casting these characters authentically – does not happen by accident,” said Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s VP of Communications and Entertainment & News Media. “Inclusion of disabled people must be an intentional effort. What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. Thus, when filmmakers make the decision to include individuals with disabilities, they are helping to remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with us.”

Additional Best Picture Nominees with Disability Connections

CODA is not the only Best Picture nominee that represents disability. In fact, eight of the ten films nominated for Best Picture have at least one disability connection in the cast, crew, or plot.

Seven of the cast members of "Don't Look Up" looking up towards the sky

Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up’s ensemble cast features four actors with disabilities. Jonah Hill and Kid Cudi have dealt with anxiety. Ariana Grande had PTSD and anxiety after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2018. Melanie Lynskey had an eating disorder.

Several nominated films deal with alcoholism in their plots, including The Power of the Dog and Nightmare Alley. The Power of the Dog features Kirsten Dunst, who has depression, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis). Nightmare Alley features Bradley Cooper, who was an alcoholic; Toni Collette, who had panic attacks and bulimia; and Mark Povinelli, who is a little person and is president of LPA.

West Side Story’s Director Steven Spielberg is dyslexic. King Richard’s Dylan McDermott is a recovering alcoholic, and Beyonce had depression. And Belfast’s Judi Dench has macular degeneration.

Other Notable Nominees with Disability Connections

Character art for Massimo, who only has one arm

Massimo in Luca

Pixar’s Luca was nominated for Best Animated Feature. The film features Massimo, a character with only one arm. Writer, director, and RespectAbility Lab alumna Ashley Eakin, who was born with a limb difference, said that “Luca is a great example of how we can include representation of people with different bodies in all of our content. Too often the character with some type of disability or limb difference is the villain or scary. While Massimo is brash, he is also a talented chef and caring father. They even make light of the way he lost his limb with ultimately explaining it was just the way he came into the world.”

Audible, nominated for Best Documentary Short, focuses on athletes from Maryland School for the Deaf, including Amaree McKenstry-Hall, who loses a close friend to suicide.

Cyrano stars Peter Dinklage, who is a Little Person. While Dinklage was not nominated, the film was nominated for Best Costume Design.

Looking to the Future

The pace of diversity of all marginalized populations has been increasing, allowing new voices to be heard. With Hollywood striving to boost diversity and inclusion, opening the inclusion umbrella for the one-in-five people living with a disability is the right thing to do as well as economically smart given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion. However, the lack of representation – just 2.8 percent of characters on TV and 2.3 percent on film – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today.

More people with disabilities need to be visible in front of – and behind – the camera. An increase in diverse, accurate, and authentic portrayals of disabled people in television and film can significantly help to end stigmas that undermine their opportunities to receive the education, training and employment opportunities needed to succeed.

The 94th annual Academy Awards will air live on ABC on Sunday, March 27.

Meet the Author

Eric Ascher

Eric Ascher is the Communications Associate for RespectAbility. He is responsible for supporting RespectAbility’s Vice President, Communications in developing and implementing advocacy efforts and communications of various types. Ascher manages RespectAbility’s social media channels, website and emails; organizes and develops webinars; and supervises Communications Fellows.

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