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TV Shows and Movies That Address Disability and Difference

Want to teach kids about empathy without preaching? Add these gems to your watch list

Tina Cha

Published on: February 10, 2021

TV Shows and Movies That Address Disability and Difference

Speechless. Photo from American Broadcasting Company

Television shows and movies for older tweens and teens


This comedy focuses on a family of five who move to a ritzy neighborhood (although to a rundown house there) to gain access to a wealthier school district that can provide better services for their son who has cerebral palsy.

J.J. Dimeo,  portrayed by actor Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, is a sarcastic teenager with an eyeroll and attitude to match. He communicates through a keyboard and screen, and at school has an equally outspoken aide (Cedric Yarbough) who helps J.J. communicate with teachers and classmates. Minnie Driver stars as J.J.’s overprotective mother.
There are plenty of serious topics in the storylines: parents caring for a child with special needs; siblings that likely need more parental attention than is given, tweens/teens and their awkward interactions and a surrounding community who aren’t as helpful as they think they are. "Speechless" uses comedy and absurdity to acknowledge the flaws of the systems around the family while sustaining the strength of the family’s bond.

Three seasons of "Speechless" are currently available on Hulu. Recommended for ages 12 and older. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon” 

Zak is a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from his group home in North Carolina to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. He meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf ), a down-on-his-luck fisherman, who finds himself on the run after stealing from another’s crab traps, and the two head to Florida together, with Zak’s counselor (Dakota Johnson) on their tail. The film is lighthearted, with Zak’s basic understanding of Tyler’s mile-a-minute dialogue, and also heart-wrenching as Zak is dealing with the baggage of being abandoned by his family. Actor Zack Gottsagen, who portrays the character Zak, is at the forefront of the current trend of casting actors with Down syndrome in feature film roles. Families should be prepared for hearing the “r” word, and plenty of cursing as well.

Currently available on Hulu. Recommended for ages 13 and older. You might also like: Born This Way.”

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

In this documentary, viewers are introduced to Camp Jened, a summer camp for kids with disabilities that ran for more than 25 summers in upstate New York. Many campers from the ‘70s eventually became disability rights activists, including Judy Huemann and co-director James LaBrecht. The film showcases footage from the ‘70s and intersperses it with current-day interviews of the campers, who tell of their fight for accessibility rights in America. Their advocacy led to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, comprehensive civil rights legislation that was signed into law in 1990. Be aware that there is frank talk of sex and STDs, some crude language, as well as disturbing footage of malnourished young people with disabilities and their harrowing experiences.

Crip Camp is available on NetflixRecommended for ages 15 and older.

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