Disability in American Society
Art/Film/Literary/Media Interpretation Paper
Forrest Gump is a movie about a character played by Tom Hanks that was born with a crooked spine and is intellectually disabled. The film follows the life of Forrest, tracing from when he was a boy all the way to when he enters fatherhood. It shows his past as an Alabama football player, a soldier in the Vietnam war, a successful shrimp-boater, and an acclaimed runner. However, the character Forrest Gump was not always good at running, in fact he was barely able to walk as a result of his crooked spine. However, one day he overcame his spine condition and was able to run faster than anyone else. Despite his childhood physical disability, as well as his intellectual disability, Forrest Gump achieves many successes throughout the movie. For example, during his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War, he was able to rescue many soldiers. He ended up receiving a Medal of Honor for his bravery. One of the soldiers he saved happened to be Lieutenant Dan, who ultimately lost both of his legs and was disabled as a result of the war. Overall, both Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan was able to form a very successful shrimp company and became very wealthy. They were able to achieve what some may consider the “American Dream” despite their disabilities, and societies reactions to their disabilities.
The issue shown in this media piece is the treatment that people with disabilities receive from society. Throughout the course of his life, the treatment Forrest Gump receives changes, depending on the time period, as well as the people he is surrounded by. Additionally, Lieutenant Dan struggles to resume his life within society post war after newly acquiring a physical disability. This issue is important, because it portrays that someone with any kind of disability, be it mental or physical, is still capable of participating in many activities and careers, and still has the potential to acquire the American Dream, in lieu of the treatment they receive from society. In the film, Forrest Gump is presented as disabled, both physically and intellectually, commonly known as the “local idiot”. Through the portrayal of ability in this film, it can be determined that any disability, and any of its accompanying stereotypes and ideologies do not define a person or anything that they are capable of achieving.
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Forrest Gump is depicted at the beginning of the film as being born with a crooked spine and being intellectually disabled. Although he is able to overcome the physical disability, he still exhibits his intellectual disability throughout his life. Lieutenant Dan, in his time of depression as a result of his disability, suggests that you are not yourself anymore after becoming disabled. There is an interesting interaction between the intellectually disabled Forrest, and physically disabled Lieutenant Dan, creating layers of conversational dissonance, as theirs views and values of life differ.
There is a scene in the film in which Forrest and his mother meet with the principal of the school to discuss Forrest’s academic placement. This meeting reveals that Forrest had a relatively low I.Q. of 75. According to the American Psychological Association, Intelligence Quotient, or I.Q. tests are designed to measure intellectual functioning. An I.Q. score provides a rough numerical assessment of an individual’s level of mental functioning in comparison with that of others. The vast majority of people in the United States have I.Q.s between 80 and 120, and an I.Q. of 100 is considered to average. An individual with an I.Q. score below 70-75, which is considered to be significantly below average, can be diagnosed as intellectually disabled (Benson, 2003). According to an analysis of the Normal Distribution Curve of Intelligence Quotients, approximately 6.7% of the U.S. population scores between a 70 -79 on I.Q. tests (“The Normal Distribution…”, 2016). In another scene in the film, a doctor explains to Forrest and his mother that Forrest was born with “strong legs but a crooked spine.” He was forced to wear leg braces which made walking difficult and running near impossible. Forrest’s crooked spinal cord may be scoliosis, although it is never truly revealed. According to research conducted at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, approximately 3 out of every 100 people have some form of scoliosis (“Bones, Muscles & Joints”, 2019).
The portrayal of Forrest Gump overcoming his physical disability of a crooked spine is not an accurate portrayal. At the beginning of the film, Forrest Gump was never good at running nor walking as a result of his crooked spine. However, one day he overcame his spine condition and was able to run faster than most kids. This overcoming of his disability occurred because he was outrunning the kids that were trying to bully him, and he ran until his leg braces fell off and suddenly he could run and walk perfectly, which is clearly inaccurate. Additionally, the way in which the actor who plays Forrest, Tom Hanks, portrays Gump, is not characteristic of people with disabilities at all. He portrays Forrest to be a slow, and confused character who follows the crowd and does as he is told, without any self-determination on Forrest’s part. Tom Hank is an actor without a disability, playing the role of a character with a disability, therefore, the portrayal of the disability can potentially be seen as insensitive, hence an inaccurate portrayal of Forrest. Self-determination is something that was discussed in class that is very pertinent to this story. Self-determination is not when and individual with a disability does everything on their own, rather it is them communicating if and when they need assistance, and making their own decisions and choices of how they live their lives (Rice, 2019).
As discussed in this course, the Medical Model of disability focusses on a medical and scientific perception of disability. This model links a disability diagnosis to an individual’s physical body. The model supposes that this disability may reduce the individual’s quality of life and the aim is, with medical intervention, this disability will be diminished or corrected (Rice, 2019). Therefore, at the beginning of the film, the Medical Model is used to portray Forrest’s disability. The doctors attempt to “fix” his crooked spine using leg braces, and the principal of his school says that his I.Q. is too low to be integrated in with the other students at school. However, later on in the film, both Forrest and Lieutenant Dan prove that they can function just as well as anyone else within society as long as there are no structural or attitudinal variables that prevent them from doing so. The Social Model is also utilized in this film. The Social Model states that society is the main contributory factor in disabling people (Rice, 2019). Forrest’s disability did not prevent him being an Alabama football player, a soldier in the Vietnam war, or a successful shrimp-boater along with Lieutenant Dan. Neither physical nor intellectual disabilities held them back from doing anything, rather it was society itself that placed the labels of disabilities upon them.
At the beginning of the film, Forrest is not integrated into society due to his intellectual disability. His childhood doctor explains to his mother that due to his low I.Q., he cannot participate in school with other children his age. His mother refutes this, and insists he remain integrated with the other students. His physical disability makes him separated from other children his age as well, because they bully him as a result of both his physical and mental disabilities. Lieutenant Dan on the other hand, acquires his disability later in life, and as a result is very isolated from society. He stops taking care of himself, he spends his time on the streets, and appears to be homeless and very depressed. This isolation causes him to feel little reason for living.
This particular media piece is unique to other media sources. The film Forrest Gump portrays disability in the sense that it does perpetuate some stereotypes and stigmas of disabilities, and yet it also portrays that disabilities do not need to prevent people from acquiring the American dream at the same time. This media piece can both hurt and help society’s image of this disability. It can hurt society’s image because the way that Forrest’s disability is manifested in the film is very characteristic to stereotypes surrounding people with disabilities. Forrest talks very slowly, and often doesn’t understand what is happening, he just does as he is told. This is why he is such a likeable character. He is extremely liked, extremely successful, and highly honored by many people all across America. This being said, these things are true because of the mild manner in which his disabilities manifest. Gump fits Hollywood standards because he is a neat, young, straight, white American male. He has control over his body, participates in ‘normal’ activities, and overall appears to be a ‘normal’ American man. In contrast, real disabled people may not be in full control over their physical bodies, may be unable to participate in ‘normal activities,’ and may have disabilities that manifest in a way that is outwardly visible. The audience knows that the character of Forrest Gump is just an act. Most Americans love Forrest Gump because he is different, but not too different. This being said, there are some people who may argue that the film may be helpful to society’s image of disability. Despite his disabilities, Forrest was able to have a full and successful life as an Alabama football player, a soldier in the Vietnam war, a successful shrimp-boater, an acclaimed runner, and eventually a father. Some may consider such a life the American Dream. The goal of this film was to follow a character through the decades of the twentieth century. Forrest Gump was such a likeable character, despite his disability, when he should really be seen as a likeable character because of who he is as a person, not despite his abilities.
My past experiences with disability are more central to mental illness, rather than physical or intellectual disabilities. Mental illness runs in my family, and so I have been exposed to it my entire life, but I have experienced it most closely with my brother. Ever since grade school, my brother has struggled with anxiety, OCD, and ADHD. The symptoms of these disorders presented themselves at such an early age for him, that at first my parents were unsure what he was struggling with. Additionally, his teachers were unaware to what degree he was struggling, and made their own assumptions that he was ‘slow,’ ‘stupid,’ and overall ‘incapable’ of participating in the central schooling that his classmates were participating in. There were times when he was trying to ask for help, and he was disregarded by his teachers, and his needs were so extraordinarily neglected that he had to switch schools several times. It is for these reasons that this film resonates so closely with me due to the similarities between my brother’s early experiences at school, and Forrest Gump’s early experiences at school. The assumptions that were made in both situations, at such premature times, could have potentially set their lives up to lead nowhere if no one believed in them. In the film, Forrest’s mother went to the extreme measures of sleeping with the school’s principal in order to grant him access to the same school as the other children, as there was little other opportunity for Forrest to gain an education. Luckily, in my brother’s situation, my parents took him to see pediatric professionals that helped them to diagnose him, prescribe him proper medication, and provide documentation that would grant him special accommodations and access to special education tools throughout his schooling.
My personal reaction to the film Forrest Gump, is that the writers and the directors had good intensions in the making of this film, however the film does ultimately portray some stereotypes of people with disabilities. The overall goal of this film, that has resonated with society for generations ever since it was created in 1994, is that it tells an American tale. It follows a character throughout some of the most prominent decades in the twentieth century, and Forrest Gump’s status as a disabled person is second to that goal. As a result, the film fails to properly and respectfully portray individuals with disabilities. Through some research of my own, I feel that the term ‘Ableism’ is highly applicable to this film. According to NCCJ, a human relations organization dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism in America, Ableism can be defined as “the discrimination against people who do not portray the same mental, physical, or intellectual capacity as any favored able-bodied person” (Network, 2018). There are several forms of Ableism, including stereotypes, assumptions, and negative attitudes, that lead to individuals with disabilities being seen as inferior to everyone else around them (Network, 2018). In Forrest Gump, Ableism is one the main recurring themes throughout the story’s entirety due to the portrayal of Forrest as disabled, both physically and intellectually, commonly known as the “local idiot”. The fact of the matter is, that this film is so well known by so many people, and over the years it has been instrumental in the telling of an American tale. Forrest Gump himself is such a well-known, and well-liked character, and unfortunately his status as a disabled person is a large part of his identity, despite the politically incorrect meaning that this character would have today.