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Will Coda’s Oscars Triumph Open The Doors For Disabled Film-Makers? Let’s Hope So

March 30, 2022

 So Coda has triumphed at the Oscars; the likable cheese-fest with a feelgood plot is hardly great cinema, but it’s also hard to dislike. The moments when Troy Kotsur won the Bafta this month, and then the Oscar last night, were enough to have this cynical old disability activist jumping out of his chair with glee and admiration for both the actor himself and the coolness of his acceptance speeches. Coda’s win is a key moment in the sometimes problematic relationship between disability and cinema. Coming so soon after the triumph of Rose Ayling-Ellis on Strictly, this is a chance for us disabled people to revel in the spotlight that Deafness has had this awards season, a moment where Deaf people are in the public consciousness and are being celebrated. Let’s hope that focus leads to better access for Deaf people and scrutiny of the horrific cuts to Deaf education and access that have been made during the austerity era (and are yet to be rectified).

Dan Edge, who sits on the Equity diversity committee and is an accomplished actor in his own right, has said that the success of Coda and Kotsur’s win throws a bomb at the perceived industry wisdom that disabled actors are not bankable. It is a big moment for disabled talent all round and I sense we won’t be waiting another 35 years for a disabled actor to win a major award, like we have been since Marlee Matlin picked up best actress in 1987. There is a great opportunity for the streamers, who can take risks with disabled talent that perhaps studios and distributors will not.

But what about the writers, directors and producers? The above-the-line, behind-the-scenes talent who get these films made and are the creative force behind a plucky and small, yet properly financed indie like Coda? The reality is that Deaf and disabled directors are not getting the chances they should and being a disabled director seems to remain a difficult sell in film and television. Last week the BBC aired Then Barbara Met Alan, written by disabled flag bearer and all-round good guy Jack Thorne and Deaf actor turned writer Genevieve Barr. It was an exciting piece of event television, with brilliant performances by a disabled cast and an ace disabled producer in Bryony Arnold. But the BBC told me that, due to the film’s complexity and scale, there was not a disabled director right for the role. It is debatable if this is true, but if it is, where is the disabled talent and why is it not being developed and given breaks? Amit Sharma, a disabled co-director, was brought on a few weeks before shooting, which sadly smacks of a token gesture.

This is not meant to disrespect Sian Heder, the director of Coda, who has done a sterling job of crafting the film into an audience-facing Oscar winner. But it would have been really groundbreaking if a disabled director could have been seen clutching that best picture Oscar. Someone who has the experience of difference and knows what it is to be disabled.

Hopefully, the industry takeaway from Coda will be that disability can sell and that will open a few doors for new, emerging talent. If only three women have ever won a directing Oscar, when will the first disabled director be awarded one?

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