Fun Fact Friday presents: Subgenres Of Disability In Documentary Filmmaking

This week’s Fun Fact:
The use of disability in the documentary film genre has existed since the early days of film. According to Sandahl and Mitchell, there are four different disability documentary subgenres: medical, eugenic, inspirational, and activist, with a film “[tending] to fall into one primary subgenre while exhibiting characteristics of others” (515). In a way, these different genres show how ideas surrounding disability have changed over time. The most radical shift (so far) has occurred with the activist subgenre. Whereas the first three mainly focus on the individual, with attention being paid to advances in medicine, (medical) end-of-life issues, (eugenic) and the ability to overcome disability, (or the lack thereof) (inspirational) the activist subgenre “includes documentaries that explore the social and political dimensions of disabled people’s lives and advocate, explicitly or implicitly, for systemic liberatory change” (516). An early example of this would be Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, (1967) which exposed the inhumane treatment of inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater. Aside from advocating for change, the activist subgenre shows “the shared and sometimes contentious perspectives among those who comprise contemporary disability communities,” with films such as Billy Golfus and David E. Simpson’s When Billy Broke His Head…And Other Tales of Wonder (1994) and David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Vital Signs: When Crip Culture Talks Back (1995) being two prime examples (517). These films present the multiple perspectives pertaining to the disability community, instead of some overarching understanding of disability itself through one person.

– Jonathan Bartholomy, RAFF Chicago Planning Committee Member

RAFF Chicago runs from October 4-8, 2017. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook!!!

If you would like to get involved with RAFF Chicago please contact us at (773) 203-5039 or email Matt Lauterbach at

Related Film:



Chicago Cultural Center


Works Cited
Sandahl, Carrie and David Mitchell. “Documentary Film.” The Encyclopedia of Disability.
Ed. Gary Albrecht. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. 515-517. Print.

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