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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How Hollywood Portrays Visual Impairment

Scent of a WomanAs a recent discussion on FFB’s Facebook page makes clear, you don’t need to literally see a movie to enjoy it. In one post, we asked the question, “What’s your favorite movie featuring a person who’s blind or visually impaired?” And the response, coming from people who are blind, visually impaired and sighted, was overwhelming—more than any single post has elicited in recent memory.

People didn’t hesitate to share films, from recent years and decades ago, featuring real-life visually impaired actors and, in some cases, actors who won Academy Awards for their portrayals of those with blinding conditions.

Among the most popular were The Miracle Worker, Scent of a Woman, At First Sight and Wait Until Dark. But some people mentioned a few under-the-radar films—The Eye, for instance, with Jessica Alba, and Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken, the last film to feature Michael Schoeffling, everyone’s favorite 1980’s-era crush, who played Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Another one is Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer.

The Facebook post’s comments raise one salient point—there are many movies featuring blind characters. Perhaps one reason is, someone who’s blind isn’t necessarily encumbered by assistive devices, such as hearing aids or life-support machines—which, when you consider Hollywood’s penchant for seemingly strong, attractive characters leading productive lives, makes sense.

A scene from The Miracle Worker, starring Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne
Bancroft as her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Another reason might be that blindness seems an easy condition to portray. Oh, how wrong that assumption is! A few actors in these movies are quite convincing—a young Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (above), for instance. But, in many cases, the blind character resembles a sighted person who simply doesn’t look anyone in the eye, as is the case with Lynn-Holly Johnson in Ice Castles.

Something else worth noting is that many scripts tread lightly around the details of a character’s blindness. Perhaps this is a misguided attempt to be politically correct—”This person just happens to be blind; otherwise, she’s a regular person!” This is admirable, but not very interesting. The fact is, the unique experiences of those who have lost or are losing vision provide them with insights many of us don’t have.

Maybe Hollywood filmmakers, in particular, are less interested in investigating what it’s like to be blind than they are in using blindness as a major point of conflict—a key to a successful script.

But why does nearly every movie show the blind character attempting to drive a car—most notably Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman? For those who don’t know anyone who’s blind or visually impaired, this is a cheap laugh. Ironically, the loss of a driver’s license is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to someone losing vision to a retinal disease. It means loss of mobility, and giving up a great deal of independence. This is yet another detail that could help make a script compelling.

All of this said, there are a few excellent movies out there, and a whole bunch of films that are good for a quick thrill. And it’s apparent, from the responses to our Facebook post, that these films are a source of entertainment and/or inspiration for both sighted and visually impaired audiences. At the very least, the best films recognize those who’ve experienced vision loss as human beings who, in many ways, are like everyone else, with one exception—they’ve learned to “see” in many other ways.

Pictured, top: Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell in Scent of a Woman.

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2 Responses to 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How Hollywood Portrays Visual Impairment'

  1. Kerry says:

    Did anyone mention the movie Blindness, based on a novel by Jose Saramago? It is highly disturbing. The scene in Scent of a Woman may seem like a humorous one, but I don’t, as a blind woman, feel annoyed by the portrayal of a blind person driving. Of course it was played up for the movie audience, but if you look deeper, at the character, you see that he is stuck in the past and the drive is his sad last attempt to hold on to sight.

  2. Kevin says:

    The Miracle Worker movie is probably one of the most popular movies as it features the inspiring Helen Keller (the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree). And I agree with the point that movies about eye impairments should inspire both sighted and visually impaired audiences and not use them as a source of conflict. No one wishes to be blind. Directors should take notice this importance.

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