Many Americans have disabilities, ranging from mental health conditions, such as depression to physical conditions, such as Cerebral Palsy and people who are in wheelchairs. The Americans Disability Act (ADA) was created in 1990, the United States’ first piece of civil rights legislation, prohibiting people with disabilities from being discriminated against several areas. While the United States has enacted federal legislation, other nations such as Canada, do not have laws on the federal level that protect people with disabilities, each province making the choice to enact disability laws (Kovacs Burns & Gordon, 2010). In spite of current disability legislation, there is still some stigma and stereotypes that exist concerning people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are often portrayed in the media in negative ways.
For this project, I chose Lt. Dan played by Gary Sinise from the movie “Forrest Gump.” Even though, Lt. Dan’s character and his disability were not at the forefront of the movie, his character taking a backseat to another character who had AIDS and Gump’s mental disability of having a low IQ, Lt. Dan’s role was still important. I chose to write about Lt. Dan for a few reasons. First off, Lt. Dan was a Vietnam Veteran (Zemeckis, 1994). In the past, the United States’ military has not been treated well by society when they come back from war. Many soldiers, especially military that served on the front lines, have suffered greatly at the hands of overseas combat. They have witnessed their friends getting shot and killed and have also been subjected to physical injuries that have left them permanently disabled. I see the same things happening right now, many of our United States’ veterans suffering from mental disabilities, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Other men and women are dealing with the loss of limbs. While we should guarantee employment and good care for our veterans, this has not been happening the way that it should, many of our veterans suffering in silence.
Lt. Dan, once a strong, confident leader, ended up getting his legs blown off in the Vietnam War while fighting with his troop. Fortunately, he was saved by Forrest Gump, who carried Dan to safety. Another reason for choosing Lt. Dan is that I wanted to write about a character who was not born disabled. Often, a character who was once considered physically “normal” has a harder time adjusting to their new condition, often angry and bitter about their new state of being. This was especially true for Lt. Dan. Even though Gump saved his life, Lt. Dan was not happy or grateful at first that his life was spared. As he lay in his hospital bed recovering, he is just miserable and sad. Lt. Dan feels useless and crippled, not somebody who can make a good contribution to society (Zemeckis, 1994). I feel that his character was included in the movie to portray more of what happened to veterans of war after they get back home, versus people just suffering from physical disabilities. When “Forrest Gump” came out in 1994, it was only three years after the United States’ veterans had returned from the Persian Gulf War.
However, Lt. Dan’s role did give an effective close-up view of people with physical disabilities. Lt. Dan ended up in a wheelchair, which made his disability physical. Yet, I feel that Dan had other mental health disabilities, such as PTSD. The movie showed scenes where Dan was drinking heavily. I feel that he used drinking to deal with both the loss of his legs. I feel that Lt. Dan also suffered from Alcoholism and Depression, all invisible disabilities.
I feel that Lt. Dan can best be described as pitiable and pathetic. Instead of being happy that Gump saved his life, he took it out on him and yelled during one of their encounters that he was supposed to let Lt. Dan die. Lt. Dan’s lack of hope made him somebody to be pitied. Dan’s lack of hope was most evident in his angry words that expressed how left out and mistreated he felt, at the hands of society and the government. Said Lt. Dan to Forrest after seeing Forrest shake President Kennedy’s hand and receive a medal for saving Lt. Dan in the war, “You, only an imbecile, only a moron who goes on t.v., who makes a fool out of himself in front of the whole damn country, the Congressional Medal of honor!” He expresses more anger toward America before his wheelchair slides down some ice. Another example of Dan’s pitiable and pathetic state is how he talks about what some other Veterans said about Jesus. Said Lt. Dan, “All of these cripples down at the VA. Jesus this. . . God is listening. I just have to help myself. Walk beside him in the kingdom. Kiss my crippled ass!” By those words, it is obvious that Lt. Dan has lost in faith in God and having a better life, Lt. Dan maladjusted. (Zemeckis, 1994).
Fortunately, “Forrest Gump” takes a mindful viewing approach to people with disabilities. It does not just show Lt. Dan as a person who lost his legs and is now part of the disability group. Lt. Dan is portrayed as a man who is struggling over the loss of his legs and what they symbolize to him. As a man who once led an army troop and could run over mountains, terrain, and hills, he can no longer do that. I liked how the film showed Dan questioning why Forrest saved him, Dan also struggling with depression and alcoholism. Lt Dan was portrayed as a real person with real feelings, not just some guy who is crippled and should just be lucky to be alive. Adjusting to a disability can be painful and emotionally agonizing.
People with disabilities should not always play a person with a disability. Having a disability is just part of who somebody is. If a person has inferior acting skills to another person who can perform the role better and do a good job getting the wanted message across, then that person should get the job. I feel that by allowing people who do not have disabilities to play a role, they can learn what a person with a disability faces. That does not mean that the actor who does not have a disability cannot talk and get information from somebody with a disability.
Back in Lt. Dan’s time, the ADA act was not created yet. There were no wheelchair ramps for restaurants, grocery stores, or restrooms. Lt. Dan’s wheelchair sliding on the ice and him falling out of the wheelchair showed the effects of not having accessible ways to enter buildings. This example shows Lt. Dan as pitiable and pathetic, unable to live a successful life. One instance of prejudice was when Forrest Gump was wheeling Lt. Dan through the street and a guy waiting in a cab gets impatient with how slow they are going and starts beeping his horn at Lt. Dan. Dan gives a derogatory gesture to him and keeps getting pushed by Forrest. In this example, it shows Dan as somebody who cannot live a successful life without the help of other people, such as Forrest pushing his wheelchair. However, this is unfair, as back in Lt. Dan’s time, motorized wheelchairs or buses with wheelchair lifts did not exist. In the scene where Lt Dan, talks about living off the government’s money, after Forrest gets him to his hotel, this shows a stereotype that people with disabilities do not want to work; instead, they want to leech off taxpayer’s dollars, be lazy, and just take advantage of the government. This is an example of Lt. Dan being shown as both maladjusted and a burden on society, a guy who just benefits from the government without contributing to society through gainful employment (Zemeckis, 1994).
The movie “Forrest Gump” showed what veterans of war experience as the result of a visible disability. While the film did portray some common stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that is directed against people with disabilities, overall, the movie encouraged mindful viewing. Lt. Dan shown was shown as a real human being with feelings, thoughts, and struggles that occurred on his journey to coping with and accepting the loss of him limbs.
- Kovacs Burns, K., & Gordon, G. L. (2010, March). Analyzing the impact of disability legislation in Canada and the United States. Journal of Disability Policy Studies , 205-218.
- Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1994). Forrest Gump [Motion Picture].