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Representations of Disability, the Example of “Forrest Gump” Film

The world is not ideal and there is always much grief and injustice in it, this is why some people have turned out to be deprived of certain benefits that ordinary people have because of the dysfunction of their bodies. Handicapped people have had different names and labels in the course of history – they were considered challenged, sick or disabled. In other words, they were at once stigmatized as having certain disorders, and at once, from the very beginning of their lives, they were thrown out of the normal society with normal abilities who preferred not to notice the handicapped people instead of looking for an optimal way of interacting with them. The topic of the present paper is to define the societal roles of handicapped people and to find out how they have been formed due to exclusion and stereotypes of normal people. The outstanding example of a person who managed to overcome the stereotype and become a really worthy member of society, crashing all stereotypes simply by his wise and leveled life is Forrest Gump – the hero of the film and novel with the same title. But at first, it is relevant to turn to the theoretical issues of the problem.

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Such a behavioral pattern created a vision of handicapped people as an initially inferior class that possessed certain characteristics and interacted only with the members of their group, being neglected and isolated from everyone else. The problem of such exclusion was recognized only not long ago, with the first attempt of Randolph Bourne to attract attention to the issue. He wrote a powerful essay on the topic of how the handicapped person feels when he understands he is not like everyone and describes the way he has to struggle through his life to convince everyone of their validity as a personality, as an individual, and a member of society. Even if the person has profound opportunities and is capable to do things not all normal people can do, he will still be left behind even the most ordinary, average but normal citizen:

“This attitude is likely to keep him at a generally low level of accomplishment unless he has an unusually strong will, and a strong will is perhaps the last thing to develop under such circumstances” (Bourne).

The essay of Bourne was written at the beginning of the 20th century and he is still considered to be one of the first people who began to be obsessed by the issue of segregation that followed every handicapped person. The article is also considered as a guide to happiness and the number of ways to create motivation and belief in their own feelings for people with disabilities. What is more, the article introduces a role model into the world of people with disabilities. This model shows them the right way of how to behave with similar people who need and deserve just and respect.

Since then, the issue was thoroughly investigated from the point of view of the ability of the society to provide equal opportunities for usual and handicapped people, to define the limits of distinction that has been historically established between these groups, and the ways to establish an equal society with the proper regard to the challenges that handicapped people have. As Roth indicates in his article, a handicap is a stigma that is inherent in all individuals who do not have any visible or concealed disorders because they have the natural wish to classify everything that may give them a reason for supporting their superiority. It is essential for them to support their self-esteem and to diminish the role and value of other groups of society because of their difference or some sort:

“Handicap is a social construction. There is a biological substratum, but what it means to be handicapped to others and to oneself is overwhelmingly social and decisively political” (Roth 56).

Thus, as it can be seen from the preliminary theoretical preview, it is possible to say that the place of handicapped people in the normal world is heavily influenced by the vision created by people without disabilities and is based on the initial statement that handicapped people are inferior, incomplete and unable to perform their functions in society. This statement will become the basis for analysis of Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump – this film produced an outstanding effect in 1994 when it was presented to society and found much resonance in different layers of it. The symbolic hero that has to fight for recognition and for his place in the world for his whole life, thus achieving success that was far unachievable for any other person in the world shows how hard it may be for a handicapped person to exist in the world of stereotypes and segregation. Forrest Gump is the one who is surprised by such attitude, who is sincere and naive during his whole life and who shows by all his actions that all he wants is to be like everyone else and to be treated equally. Even though he has achieved much in his life, has become rich and famous, he is a usual person who only wants to be listened to and to be heard as well. He was guided by love to Jenny Curran that finally ended in their marriage and the birth of their son. So one can suppose that the story including an image of an impaired person who has a very low IQ but still manages to receive everything in his life so many people have ever wanted, though either unwillingly or unconsciously, shows how well-handicapped people can act in the society if they are taken seriously and their handicap is neglected.

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Forrest Gump is the film that shows the main hero achieving success in so many spheres that it is hard to believe that Forrest actually was handicapped. He has won military awards, he has become an outstanding sportsman and an ideological inspiration for many people when he started his run across the country. He also married his beloved woman who has a child from him, and though she died, he still was happy with his son Forrest and continued loving Jenny up to the end of the film – it is so touching to see how seriously he treated the request of his son not to read the letter to his mother and to bring it to her grave. During the whole film, one can see how concentrated Forrest is, how seriously he treats all tasks he is entrusted with, and how fortune smiles at him on his way to success.

Judging from this point, it is possible to say that the main philosophy of the film is that handicapped people are also equal members of society and they can make a great contribution to the life of their country only if they are perceived and treated properly. They should be given the opportunities for self-realization but not isolated in their handicap – this is the right way of unification of handicapped and normal people that can be done in every country all over the world thus moving the society to an absolutely different level of its existence.

Roth states in his article about handicap as a social phenomenon that the government can do much more for the disabled people than it actually does – the main thing is to listen and to understand their genuine needs before taking action and spending enormous sums of money on governmental programs that they actually do not need (56). It becomes truly reasonable to think this way as soon as one has a deeper look into the film of Zemeckis – Forrest Gump does not need anyone’s help, he does not use any subsidies or government programs that should have been designed for him to have decent conditions for existence.

It may be because of the low intellect indicators that he simply refuses to realize his handicap (or maybe he does not have enough intellectual, logical skills to realize how handicapped and normal people are distinguished) thus living a normal life in his own way. If one makes such an assumption it obviously turns out to be good to be a handicapped person who fails to understand these differences and hence makes them impossible to spoil his life. Forrest is a normal person without any physical wrongs, so he can run, fight and act like a businessman, even if he needs some more time to understand something or to make calculations – these minor disabilities however do not prevent him from achieving success in any sphere he takes up.

In addition, the sail of a mentally handicapped person Forrest Gump with his wartime friend lieutenant Dan Taylor who is physically handicapped having no legs, and their tremendous shrimp business success is also highly symbolic. This is nearly a mock at the normal society showing how two disabled people managed to do something that normal people with normal abilities failed to do – the storm destroyed all ships except theirs, which made them a huge favor in the future and gave the huge catch.

Everything in the life of Gump shows how easy it is to be successful – the main thing to achieve success is to be perseverant and to do what you consider appropriate without thinking about yourself. But actually, some critics did not support the deep meaning of the film and assumed that the main reason for Gump’s success is not to think at all. This, Hal Hinson, states that there is nothing interesting about the character of Gump in the film and the novel because everything that happens to him is just a coincidence or a chance, and he should not be credited with his success because it was not his work but only blind fortune that gave him everything. Analyzing Gump’s heroism in the Vietnam War, Hinson is of very low opinion about Gump’s heroism:

“when Gump behaves heroically – as he does in Vietnam where he rescues half his unit and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor — he does so almost by accident. Because he doesn’t quite know what’s going on” (Hinson).

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This contradictory view surely undermines the poetic vision of a handicapped hero who pursued his goals and acted according to circumstances to win fame, wealth, and harmony. The opinion of Hinson stating that Forrest Gump does not bear the responsibility for his actions as everything happening to him happens by accident has sense. The reason for this is his lack of interest in what he doe – when he commits his deeds in Vietnam, when he plays ping-pong, when he conducts his run etc. Thus, the issue of his own responsibility for the deeds in his life is really questioned from this point of view, leaving both the proponents and opponents of the fight for equality of the disabled with their arguments.

This research is surely helpful on the way of fighting for the rights and equality of handicapped people, but at the same time with the preservation of their genuine privileged status with the appropriate attention to their needs and requirements for decent existence and full-scale life. Handicapped people have the right to equal treatment but at the same time they often cannot do without governmental help, the so-called ‘self-help’, so they should not be treated in a fully equal way. Social segregation is the main enemy of handicapped people that may worsen their life even more than the handicapped themselves, and they have to fight stereotypes and reduced expectations during their whole lives, which is a challenge in itself.

This issue has been actively taken up by many countries and nowadays the programs of valorization, normalization, and integration of the handicapped acquire specific importance in social policies in many regions of the world. Developed European countries provide an extensive basis for youngsters and children as well as adults to acquire all needed opportunities for socialization, interaction with people without disabilities as well as normal life. Some programs of handicap level assessment have been worked out to understand the measure of a certain person’ opportunities, the result of which is the individual program suiting his/her “vocational, residential and social performance” (Brown and Hughson 10).

Summing up everything that has been said in the present work, it is necessary to say that the aim of the present research was to observe the formed vision of handicapped people in fiction as well as to connect this vision with the theoretical literature dedicated to the place of disabled people in the society. The issue was thoroughly studied and the main problems existing nowadays in policies concerning the socialization and treatment of handicapped people have been analyzed. It hence becomes clear that the main barrier to equality is the social stigmatization that handicapped people face due to the fixed stereotypes and classification of people according to their superiority and inferiority. As well as this classification and social stigmas, political strategies to integrate handicapped people into the normal society, hiring and educational policies have also contributed to the problem, and the solution can be found only in the logical, joint action in all spheres of human life – social, cultural, religious and political ones.

Works Cited

Bourne, Randolph. “The Handicapped.” Ragged Edge. 2001. Web.

Brown, I. Roy, and E. Anne Hughson. Behavioral and social rehabilitation and training. Captus Press, 1993.

Forrest Gump. DVD. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 1994.

Hinson, Hal. “Forrest Gump, Our National Folk Zero”. Washington Post. 1994. Web.

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Roth, William. “Handicap as Social Construct”, Society 20 (1983): 56-61.

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