Visual Impairments portrayed on the movie screen

The other night I rented a 2015 movie called The Age of Adaline.  It’s a romance film with elements of fantasy.  It depicts the story of a woman who, due to a strange automobile accident in 1937, is frozen in time. She will always be 29 years old. I was interested in the film because of all of the vintage clothing that was sure to be featured. And, hey, I love a good romance!

Overall, I found the film to be mediocre, but there was a minor plot point and character that really fascinated me. It started me thinking about the depiction of vision loss in the media, and lack of accurate representation.

Because Adaline is eternally youthful, she cannot keep friends or lovers or jobs of any kind. Her only friend is Kathy, a woman in her mid-sixties.  When Kathy is introduced, we immediately learn that the reason that the two have remained friends for so many years is because Kathy cannot see that Adaline does not age.  Kathy is totally blind.

When Kathy’s character was introduced, I was excited about the potential realism for a character who is blind and plays a key role in a feature film.  Instead, I was disappointed by the cliché use of “blindness vs. sight” narrative angle, and the apparent lack of knowledge that the filmmakers have about the experience of living with a visual impairment.   For example, just because Kathy can’t SEE that Adaline hasn’t aged, doesn’t mean that she’s unaware.  Adaline’s voice is youthful and unchanging with the passage of time. Surely, Kathy would know this through hearing a dear friend speak.

I think the filmmakers wanted the audience to exclaim, “OF COURSE!  A poor, lonely, young, beautiful lady uses a poor, lonely, older blind lady for companionship!  And then they BOTH have a friend!   What a clever, Hollywood trick!”  I think it’s supposed to be humorous – in a film about visual, physical beauty, the only one who doesn’t care is physically blind. But really, it’s not funny.

Kathy’s character is robbed of any development.  Her blindness is a tool for a plot nuance, but only to enhance the striking beauty and youth of the main character. She gets less than ten minutes of screen time, with a throw-away reference or two about Adaline learning to read Braille, and then she’s never spoken of again. Not only that, but when we do witness Kathy’s interactions with the world, she is either seated at a piano (because, apparently, society can only imagine blind characters as musicians), or she is seated at a dinner table, with Adaline helping her find her champagne glass.

And this frustrated me. It saddens me.  As I watched this film, I tried to think of any positive portrayals of vision loss in the media, and the only example that comes to mind is more than fifty years old.

Audrey Hepburn, the epitome of grace, class, elegance and poised sophistication. Men wanted to be with her, and women wanted to be her. On-screen, she was everyone’s darling.  And once, she played a blind woman.

Audrey Hepburn’s turn as the terrorized, recently blinded Suzy Hendrix, in 1967’s Wait Until Dark is a remarkable performance.  Without giving too much of the film’s premise away, Hepburn’s blindness plays a pivotal role in the trajectory of the plot. It is both used against her by the murderous and revenge- seeking thugs who invade her New York City apartment and it also aids in her survival.

It’s a “nail-biter” of a film, and as a young, visually impaired woman watching my idol portray a disability, I cheer in Hepburn’s commitment to the role. (Fun film fact: She spent nearly a month at a school for the blind learning Braille and Independent Living Skills.)

Hepburn’s character is strong and resourceful.  She practices independent living skills, and Orientation and Mobility. She expresses frustrations about her vision loss. “Do I have to be the world champion blind lady?” she asks her husband when he urges her towards more self-sufficiency. These are all things that anyone with a low vision diagnosis – especially a new diagnosis — can relate to. I certainly did.

But again, this movie is 50 years old.  Why hasn’t Hollywood provided more recent and positive portrayals of visual impairments in everyday life?

What are your thoughts?  Do you wish that movies and television shows had more characters with visual impairments?  Why hasn’t this been more prevalent in our media?  Have you seen some particularly positive or negative depictions? What was good or bad about them?

I look forward to continuing the conversation on our Facebook thread! facebook.com/abvimichigan