Reach Me

A badly written, low budget picture, Reach Me nevertheless features a few short cameos by former Hollywood heavy-hitters, and a few stereotypes and misconceptions about people with disabilities.

A book of inspirational platitudes by an anonymous author has “gone viral” in this picture, shaking up the lives of those who read it and spurring all sorts of rumors about the writer. One journalist hears that the mysterious author has cured a lady with a cleft lip (referred to using the slang term “harelip”) of her accompanying stutter, and decides to investigate. He discovers her in the middle of being harassed for her tiny, barely noticeable cleft lip by a crowd of young black men. She introduces him to the reclusive author, who demonstrates his methods on the journalist to cure him of smoking; they turn out to be little more than making him walk out into the ocean and shouting at him, drill-sergeant style.

The “berating as cure” method of treating a speech impediment–especially one with possible roots in physical difference–has been thoroughly discredited long ago.

Another person publicly claims to have overcome his disability after reading said book; a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome appears on a TV talk show, waving the paperback around and blurting out compliments to the attractive hostess. The writers of the screenplay probably thought Tourette’s was solely about blurting out curses, when in reality it’s primarily a movement disorder; few adults with it have involuntary vocal sounds, and even fewer of them manifest uncontrollable cursing.

And finally, the “r-word” is used inappropriately, several times to criticize a wide-eyed man who shows no sign of actual intellectual disability, and also to make a joke about the sound of Professor Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer. Somebody really didn’t get the memo about Stephen Hawking, did they?

Pumpkin

It’s hard to determine if people with disabilities are being mocked in Pumpkin, or if it’s a subtle satire of image-obsessed Los Angeles sorority girls instead. Neither are portrayed in an entirely positive light.

The action centers around the so-called Challenged Games, in preparation for which the sorority girls volunteer to provide one-on-one coaching. Their primary motivation is winning a Sorority of the Year contest, and being seen associating with the disabled will cast them in a positive light in the eyes of the judges. A couple of the girls oppose the idea, on the grounds that the social contact with presumably normal people will only serve to make the “challenged athletes” self-conscious about their disabilities. And indeed the two naysayers completely botch their introductions to the athletes they’re paired with: one girl flees in terror, and the other, Carolyn, begins screaming uncontrollably when she thinks her charge, Pumpkin, is looking at her funny.

(Pumpkin is neither rotund nor orange, it’s his overbearing mother’s infantilizing nickname for him. It’s unclear how much he’s actually affected by his developmental disabilities; certainly he has trouble with balance and coordination, and his speech is affected, but Pumpkin shows he has the cognitive capacity to carry on conversations, make decisions, etc.)

Yes, Carolyn’s worst fears have come true. Pumpkin has fallen in love with her, and to prove it his disability starts magically going away! Love has done what modern medicine and years of school-based physical therapy could not! The brief glimpse of a pretty blonde girl running away screaming is enough to motivate our hero into standing and walking! (Albeit with comical windmilling attempts to balance himself.) Because all he needed was willpower!

(Had I been physically capable of it, this is where the facepalming would have begun.)

At first Carolyn attempts to deflect Pumpkin’s attentions by setting him up on a double date, pairing him with a girl Carolyn considers desperate and undesirable. She runs away crying as well, offended, and Carolyn’s handsome able-bodied boyfriend Kent must drive her home. Pumpkin is forgotten, and left stranded on the beach alone. Carolyn remembers a few hours later, and returns to retrieve him. Instead of being angry at being treated so shabbily, Pumpkin gives Carolyn a simple drawing of herself, and Carolyn realizes that she’s fascinated with Pumpkin as well. Despite the fact that Pumpkin has barely said three words to her, Carolyn decides that his suffering has made his soul beautiful and pure.

Her sorority is thoroughly upset by her newfound interest in Pumpkin, deeming it unhealthy and unnatural. Associating with a developmentally disabled person is socially acceptable within the context of providing charity or assistance, but an equitable romantic relationship is unthinkable. When the pair decide to sleep together, each family accuses the other of rape. Once word gets out about this, Carolyn is kicked out of her sorority and school, and makes a suicide attempt.

The sorority still thinks their association with the disabled athletes could win them the prize, though, and engineers Carolyn’s return at the sorority ball so she can be seen repudiating her relationship with Pumpkin and dancing with able-bodied Kent instead. Pumpkin and a couple of his disabled friends decide to crash the party, resulting in a fistfight in which he (looking rather more coordinated than ever) manages to defeat Kent. It isn’t that Pumpkin is suddenly stronger or lands more blows than Kent, it’s the humiliation of being bested by a disabled person that Kent can’t handle.

A distraught Kent drives his car off a cliff, becoming physically disabled himself. He’s released from the hospital in record time, with a shiny new motorized wheelchair which his fraternity brothers have to push for some reason. He’s spending all his time in a darkened room, blaming Carolyn for his problems, when Pumpkin visits him at home and encourages him to return to public life. Kent does by becoming the new coach of Pumpkin’s team and giving an inspirational speech at the Challenged Games. Though he’s only recently been disabled and hasn’t even figured out how to work his motorized chair, with his movie-star good looks and muscular physique, Kent is already at the top of the pecking order of people with disabilities. Perhaps this is a glimpse of his future career as a motivational speaker.

In the final scene, the disabled athletes (with nary a genuine disabled actor in evidence) at the Challenged Games bumble about and fall all over themselves for no apparent reason, revealing the prejudices of the writers and filmmakers. It’s as if they believe “challenged athletes” aren’t capable of figuring out how to run. One final facepalm before Carolyn and Pumpkin walk off into the sunset together.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Both little people and money were meant to be tossed around carelessly, according to the protagonists of The Wolf of Wall Street… and everyone, except for the very rich, is a little person in their eyes. Wolf opens with a controversial scene of a person with dwarfism, clad in a helmet and protective gear, being tossed towards a target during a ribald Wall Street office party. (The dwarf actor was not credited in the film, but that may have been by choice due to backlash from the little person community.)

Of course, according to Danny Porush, the real-life inspiration for Donnie Azoff, nothing like that ever happened on his watch.

And while Porush admits the firm hired little people to attend and mingle at at least one party, “we never abused [or threw] the midgets in the office; we were friendly to them,” he emphasizes. “There was no physical abuse.”

Right.

Belfort says (through a representative) that he merely heard from several people that they were thrown sometime after he left the firm.

Whether Belfort and Porush are genuine tossers or not, they don’t get a free pass on the rest of the ableism depicted in the film. Witness the two trying to one-up each other:

Jordan Belfort: No, I get it, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, you’re not afraid of like the whole kid thing, right? Like the whole…
Donnie Azoff: What, if the kid’s retarded?
Jordan Belfort: Yeah.
Donnie Azoff: No, we have two kids.
Jordan Belfort: And they’re… I mean, I don’t want to get personal or anything, but are they okay?
Donnie Azoff: No, they’re not retarded or anything like that.
Jordan Belfort: But there’s a big chance, right? The whole…
Donnie Azoff: Yeah, there’s like a 60 percent, you know… 60, 65 percent chance the kid’s gonna be fuckin’ retarded or whatever…
Jordan Belfort: That’d scare the shit out of me, buddy.
Donnie Azoff: Look, man… a lot of having a kid or whatever takes risk, whether you’re fuckin’ cousins or not, you know…
Jordan Belfort: What if… what if you… I mean, what if something like that happened?
Donnie Azoff: Well, basically, you know, if the kid was retarded I would… I would, you know, drive it up to the country and just like, you know, open the door and let it… say “You’re free now!” You know? Like, “Run free!” You know?

And then there’s what drug-seeking Jordan Belfort describes as the “cerebral palsy” phase of his Quaaludes high, in a scene where he attempts to crawl to and drive his Lamborghini while obviously under the influence.

But don’t worry about Jordan Belfort or Danny Porush; they’re doing just fine. According to the Daily Mail, Porush is now leveraging his unique business skills in the medical supply industry, working in an unknown capacity for a company called Med-Care serving the needs of the elderly and disabled in Florida. He’s enjoying the lifestyle of a multimillionaire with everything in his wife’s name… just in case.