St. Vincent

Though the focus of St. Vincent is the unlikely friendship between an introverted young boy and his Brooklynite neighbor, themes of disability and caregiving are prominent. Though it isn’t revealed until late in the story, Vincent’s wife has dementia, and he’s spent every nickel he has–and then some–attempting to pay for the best of care in an unbelievably posh nursing home that looks more like a hotel. Vincent regularly visits her dressed in a white lab coat, pretending to be her cardiologist, in order not to distress her with the realization that she doesn’t remember him. In the outside world, however, he’s in a relationship of sorts with Duka, a churlish pregnant Russian hooker deserted by her usual clientele.

Vincent suffers a stroke at one point, and though he clearly needs some cognitive and physical therapy, it seems to be provided mainly by his neighbor and her son holding up flash cards and helping him pronounce words. Later he’s seen in a dismal physical therapy room, transferring marbles into a container with his toes with no therapist in evidence. One wonders just how much rehab the Veteran’s Administration provides, and whether it’s really sufficient. Vincent is seen to have trouble controlling his mouth muscles and a limp for the remainder of the film, but Duka takes over housekeeping duties for him.

The neighbor kid and his friend have to give Duka a lesson on polite terminology, because she has no qualms about using the “R-word”, and doesn’t know why it’s not OK to call someone a midget. Yet Duka isn’t completely insensitive to disability issues; she prevents Vincent from parking in a spot reserved for the handicapped until he proudly takes his new placard out of the glove compartment.

Vincent: “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Duka: “Because you have sad life.”

The final minutes of the movie explain the title: the neighbor kid arranges to have Vincent honored on stage at his Catholic school for his service to his country and wife, as part of an assignment to recognize the saintliness of ordinary people around them.

Cloud Atlas

A sextet of nested, intersecting stories, Cloud Atlas explores the many ways the strong exploit the weak, beginning and ending with literal cannibalism, with detours into slavery and a nursing home. Elderly, non-disabled editor Timothy Cavendish asks his wealthy brother for a loan one time too many, and is tricked into checking himself into Aurora House late at night when he’s desperate for a place to stay. The staff doesn’t believe him when he says he doesn’t belong there, and won’t let him leave or call for legal representation, prompting him to utter the fateful phrase “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!”

In the book, Cavendish suffers a stroke brought on by all the stress, and makes friends with some of the other residents while he recovers his speech and motor skills. Many have been dumped there by ungrateful children waiting for their inheritance, and one seems to have aphasia, seemingly capable of saying only “I know! I know!”. They warn him that attempts to escape will result in the staff drugging his food, but their plan is successful and they escape to a pub. Cavendish later publishes “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, which gets made into a horror movie of sorts. Hundreds of years later, the ancient video is seen by cloned humans bred for servitude, and teaches them to say “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!”

The ghastly ordeal is presented as a farce, and does not touch on the larger issues of the elderly and disabled stuck in nursing homes; the directors pocketing millions of dollars while staff-to-patient ratios are cut; poorly trained, overwhelmed, or downright criminal staff; patients who could have managed at home with appropriate home care services and house modifications sent to nursing homes as a default.

Bleak House

The first character with a disability we meet in the BBC’s adaptation of Bleak House is little person Harriet, employed as a domestic servant to John Jarndyce. It’s hard to get a handle on Harriet’s personality as she has very few lines, but Jarndyce is portrayed as a kind and perhaps gullible master, just the sort to hire the physically different during an age when the upper crust sometimes focused on hiring for conventional attractiveness and even for matching height. The shifting camera angles that Harriet is usually filmed in indicate that her character is being used to introduce an element of weirdness into the atmosphere at Bleak House, as if the name and general gloom wasn’t enough.

The most visible disabled character, however, is Mr. Smallweed. In the original novel, the Smallweed family is affected by progeria, but in the movie adaptation Mr. Smallweed seems to have (at the very least) a very bad back. Though dressed in rags and with yellowed teeth, he still has the means to employ men to carry him about in an open sedan chair, flailing at them with a leather strap and hurling invectives all the while. Sedan chairs in England were generally used by women of the elite classes, so having Smallweed use one everywhere (even in the interiors of houses and buildings) must have seemed to emasculate him to contemporary readers. (Dickens was also fond of using names to indicate character traits, so perhaps the name “Smallweed” only furthered that impression.)

It’s hard to tell which makes people more nervous: Mr. Smallweed’s appearance, abusive nature, or his status as debt collector. Certainly the respectable lawyers are discomfited when asked to perform a pressure relief for him:

Generally it’s his daughter Judy who bears the brunt of his personal care, every time he commands “Shake me up, Judy!”

Such negative, stereotypical portrayals of people with disabilities were rife in the Victorian era, as they equated physical perfection with moral superiority and physical impairment with falls from grace.

9,000 Needles

From Men’s Health:

Mr. Kentucky is 11,300 miles away from home, lying in a hospital bed, and his right side is paralyzed. His massive, chiseled muscles—the ones that won Devin Dearth the state bodybuilding title—aren’t their former size, but he still bulges at the seams. Nurses at the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Tianjin, China, surround him and then part as his new doctor enters the room. The doctor, taller than everyone else, struts to the side of the bed and sticks his hand out for Devin to shake. Try as he can, Mr. Kentucky just can’t move his right hand.

Then the doctor begins to insert needles into Devin. Acupuncture to stimulate his paralyzed nerves, yes, but of a different sort: these needles are wider than any you’d find in the United States. More effective, says the doctor. He places them everywhere into Devin: his legs, arms, head, tongue, eyelids; nothing is left unpunctured. The needles will remain in him for 20 minutes, but in the meantime, the doctor asks Devin to move the frozen extremities on his right side.

It starts with his leg. The same leg that had squatted millions of pounds over the course of his 40-years lay flat and trembling. But then Devin slowly lifts it off of the bed. He hasn’t moved like that for months. And then his right arm, the one that had failed him just 15-minutes before, moves.

A Brain Bleed Changes Everything
Three years ago Devin was the Mr. Kentucky. A champion body builder. Arguably the hardest working person in the Blue Grass State. He hit the gym at 4 o’clock in the morning, every morning, then spent 8 hours a day working his six-figure job, afterward returning home to be with his wife and three children.

But one day while lifting weights—pop!—it all changed. His brain stem—the area that acts as the on and off ramp for all of the nerves in the human brain—bled; a rare occurrence with serious consequence. A small leak, really. But when that area of your brain springs event he smallest leak, 95% of the time it kills you. Devin Dearth isn’t a 95 percenter.

After weeks in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Kentucky and 3 months of in-hospital therapy, Devin was sent home with a paralyzed right side, wheelchair bound, drooling, and unable to walk or communicate effectively. His insurance had run out, and his family was struggling to pay for the at-home therapy that he required.

Devin’s mind was there, but his body was a prison. He wasn’t improving with the at-home therapy, and he seemed relegated to a paralyzed, cut-off existence for the rest of his life. Until his brother, a filmmaker and bodybuilder, stumbled upon the story of a woman who had also suffered from a brain bleed, and had then gone to China to undergo a 3-month regimen of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. It worked for her, and it was also 1/5th of the cost of just one month of his at-home therapy.

With Progress Stalled, Devin Looks Overseas for Treatment
When his brother brought up the treatment, Devin’s family members were skeptical—China? Seriously, China? But for Devin, China was an escape—an opportunity where none existed.

Every day the Chinese doctors and nurses put Devin through a brutal regimen of healing. They’d load him head to toe with needles. Afterward they’d place fire-cups—an ancient procedure that is said to increase blood flow and promote healing—all over him. Then they’d give him physical therapy that wasn’t so different from the kind he’d receive at home. And all the while, Devin undertook his rehabilitation like he took on everything else: he did it to the best of his ability, better than anyone had seen before.

9,000 needles and 12 weeks later, Devin left China. Where he’d rolled into the hospital in a wheelchair, more or less incapacitated, he walked boldly out with the help of his brother. He’d made immense gains during his time: his right side was no longer totally paralyzed, and he was able to speak in understandable, full sentences. He was on the right track.

Today: Optimistic, Back at the Gym, and Dedicated as Ever
And he still is. Three years since he left China, Devin still speaks in a slurred tone, and he still needs help to walk. But he can walk, and he can speak, and his cheerful, optimistic personality is back—a feat that wouldn’t have occurred had he not dedicated himself so fully to his recovery.

Devin is featured in the documentary 9,000 Needles, which will be released this October.

Mother of Mine (Äideistä Parhain)

Mother of Mine depicts the struggle of Eero, a young Finnish boy, to adapt to the death of his father in World War II, and the subsequent removal of a generation of Finnish children to neighboring Sweden for their protection. Eero’s putative new mother Signe wants nothing to do with the boy once he arrives, so her husband Hjalmar kindly introduces to his new home and host family. “We have a radio, a clock, and a Grandpa. He’s sick and can’t talk, but he hears everything you say. Right, old man?” In response, Grandpa (whose disability is likely the result of a stroke; his speech and motor skills are affected, but he seems largely cognitively intact) makes a slurping sound, and the two laugh a bit.

That night, at the dinner table, Grandpa is shakily feeding himself with a spoon when Signe gets frustrated. She peremptorily declares that everyone is done eating, brusquely wipes his face, and wheels him to his bedroom. Indeed, Grandpa serves as a bellwether of sorts for Signe’s moods; when she is frustrated with the interloper in her home, Grandpa is accorded little respect for his autonomy. Later, when she warms up to Eero, Grandpa is seen picnicking with the family on a grassy hill; it must have taken an effort to lug him up there in his wheelchair, but he is included as part of the family and even enjoys a beer or two.

When Eero’s mother is finally able to take care of him again, Grandpa is visibility distraught at his departure, and slurs out a single word: “Stay.”

Wheel Chair

“Wheel Chair” is a 1995 Bollywood movie, minus much of the singing and dancing, available on Netflix in the Bengali language with English subtitles. Susmita, a typist, is working late one night when three men attack her in the stairwell with the intent to rape her, causing her to fall and break her neck. Someone calls an ambulance, and the doctors at the hospital she’s taken to decline to do surgery (presumably to stabilize her neck) for fear of affecting the “Vegas” nerve. (Surely they mean vagus. One would hope that a doctor has a good grasp of geography; after all, they’d better know how to locate the islets of Langerhaans.)

Susmita’s head is put into a primitive Hannibal Lechter-type headgear that doesn’t look terribly stable, ostensibly to provide traction. The company Susmita worked for takes responsibility for paying for her care and rehabilitation, and she is brought into the care of Dr. Mitra, who runs a home for “neurological disabilities” and is also a paraplegic himself.

Dr. Mitra

Dr. Mitra agrees to take Susmita as a patient

Dr. Mitra acquired his disability in a car accident in England on his way to a neurology conference, and “somehow found his way” back to India. (It is fortunate that he became a neurologist before becoming disabled, as people with disabilities who want to enter the medical profession often face obstacles and prejudice from medical schools.) The small clinic/home he founded in Calcutta has lost its funding from the government, and the board of directors wants to sell the land to put up a nursing home. Dr. Mitra must balance his time between treating patients, fighting with his own board of directors, and cajoling money from businessmen to keep the home running and the patients fed. He is portrayed as being a professional inspiration to his patients, yet privately he drinks, relies on the assistance of the able-bodied staff for tasks a paraplegic can usually do by themselves, and occasionally wishes out loud for death just as his patients constantly do.

Susmita is wheeled in on a gurney through the men’s ward, where she is frightened by the ogling of the male residents. They are introduced as Nantu, a young man who has been disabled from birth (probably from cerebral palsy, although he’s being treated with Vitamin B):


Nantu sees Amin is making Susmita nervous and shoos him away

Mr. Shatadal, a belligerent older man on crutches who fantasizes about dying and being taken away by a white camel with a golden saddle blanket:

Mr. Shatadal

Mr. Shatadal eyes the new arrival, one of the few female residents

and Amin, a tall, withdrawn, intimidating man who was an astrophysicist before he had a nervous breakdown.


Amin stares openly at Susmita, blocking the path of her gurney

The handsome physical therapist Santu sets to work on the depressed Susmita, who agrees to work at therapy only to regain use of her hands and arms to kill herself. He stretches her limbs and painfully puts her face-down in a hammock when a bedsore begins. One night, against the orders of Dr. Mitra, Santu engages in what he calls “shock therapy”; he slides his hand up Susmita’s thigh under her clothing in order to deliberately remind her of the rape. In a panic, she moves a toe. This is hailed as a breakthrough instead of a violation of professional boundaries, and it fulfills the Disability Movie Cliche and ludicrous ableist conceit that disabled people can be cured by attention from the opposite sex.

The most realistic aspect of the movie Wheel Chair is the agonizingly slow pace of recovery for each resident. By the time Susmita is ready to return home two years after arrival, Nantu has progressed from learning his letters to slow reading (though everyone discourages him from hope of ever having a wife). Amin has displayed anger over conditions in the home, pushing Dr. Mitra over and then returning him to his wheelchair, and later writing an inscrutable equation on a slate. Mr. Shatadal reveals himself to be a self-made man from selling nuts and bolts to the American army at a huge markup, writes a large check to the home, and then suddenly goes blind and dies within minutes.

After Susmita returns to her mother’s home to begin a prescribed regimen of physical therapy and slow hunt-and-peck typing, Santu asks Dr. Mitra of the advisability of marrying her. Dr. Mitra assures him that she will be able to bear children, so Santu declares to Sumitra’s mother that he wants to “take on full responsibility” for her. Susmita is in tears at this… charming proposal, but though she ascribes to the common belief one must be able-bodied to be married she eventually acquiesces, saying that she’ll put down the returning strength of her upper body as capital and work for the rest. Santu and Susmita settle down into a house on a river, where Santu is last seen happily carrying Susmita to a wheelchair on a patio.