'I Am Sam,' a Film That Gets It, Finally

Rarely has the message from Hollywood hit us so clearly.

Once you see a person with mental retardation portrayed as accurately and positively as in the recently released movie "I Am Sam," you can only conclude that society has come a long way.

When is the last time you saw a movie that focuses around the life of a person with a developmental disability? Sure, there was Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" and Leonardo DiCaprio in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." But when is the last time the main character was not seen as a misfit? When was the last time an individual with a mental disability was shown holding a job, socializing with his friends and being a part of society?

Keep in mind that until the 1970s, people with mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities were literally warehoused in institutions. Parents were told upon the birth of children with disabilities that there was no future for these youngsters and it was best to forget about them. So, of course, in 1988 we saw Hoffman playing the role of Raymond, a man with autism who had been in an institution and was totally dependent on his brother. Moreover, the character seemed to encompass virtually every stereotype of a person with autism.

Today, in "I Am Sam," Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a father with mental retardation raising his young daughter, Lucy, who is developing typically and whose cognitive abilities are rapidly eclipsing those of her father.

A single parent struggling to raise a child is not unusual for Hollywood. A single parent with a cognitive disability struggling to raise a child? That's groundbreaking!

Every new parent, regardless of race, creed, color or economic conditions, enters his or her role a novice. We buy books on parenting. We watch tapes and talk shows. We speak to "specialists." Not long ago, I was a little taken aback when a friend told me about the parent support group she was attending every week in New York City. When I asked what kind of support they were seeking, she said, "Oh, you know, just all the usual things we have absolutely no idea how to deal with."

At one time or another, everyone needs support--whether it is from a neighbor, friend, family member, pediatrician or social service agency. Everyone seeks help, whether it is from a $150-an-hour child psychiatrist or our own mother.

"I'm smart enough to know when I need help, I ask for it," a 46-year-old mother with a learning disability told me recently. She receives support from a parents-with-special-needs program. If she needs help with parenting skills of any kind, a parent counselor is just a call away. If she feels frustrated, she attends the program's parents support group.

As the movie points out, being a loving parent has little to do with educational diplomas, bank accounts or job titles. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the role of Rita, Sam's pro-bono attorney, and her character and lifestyle are sharply drawn to contrast with Sam's situation in life. She has all the trappings of affluence and success but excruciatingly little time to sit down and just "be" with her son. Sam is a busboy at Starbucks. His job in no way appears to compromise the quality time that he spends with his daughter. The camera lingers on them swinging together in the sun, enjoying a meal, or curling up in bed reading. These are wonderful, physically warm moments. There's little price to these moments, just time well spent.

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In one critical scene of the movie, Sam is questioned by state agency officials about why he thinks he has the ability to be a father. He responds, "It's about constancy and it's about patience. And it's about listening and it's about pretending to listen when you can't listen any more, and it's about love." In the case of parents with special needs, we must provide the kind of support services that will offer practical help and an ear to listen. Parents with special needs benefit from help with tutoring, after-school activities, transportation, budgeting money and, like every parent in the universe, a little baby-sitting now and then.

I can count on one hand the number of programs that I know of to help these parents. It is my hope that with the national release of this provocative movie, every state funder for social services will see this need and respond with sensitive and creative programs.

The bottom line to the story of Sam and Lucy is that no loving parent and child should be separated because social services are not available.

"Everyone needs to understand that persons with disabilities have needs and desires just like everyone else," the parent with a disability explained. "They need to take care of someone and love someone else."

Her words seem obvious. But how many of us thought about parents with special needs before seeing "I Am Sam"? Hollywood thought about it. And Hollywood gets it.

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Joel M. Levy is chief executive of New York City-based YAI/National Institute for People With Disabilities.

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