Where Are All the People With Disabilities?

This has been cross posted on FWD/Forward (where there is a very lively comments section!).

I would like you to imagine that you are a film producer, or perhaps a television producer. You are making something, and you have decided that since an estimated 20% of the population consists of people with disabilities, that maybe there should be some people with disabilities in your finished piece. So, you decide to include them. And you do your due diligence; you consult disability activists, you educate yourself about how they should be portrayed, you make sure that their characters are fully integrated into the story, that they aren’t tokens.

This already makes you a standout in the world of film and television production, because, as a general rule, the portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television is atrocious. Some independent films might be better, but mainstream media, for the most part, tokenizes people with disabilities when it deigns to include them, and often manages to be extremely offensive about it.

Now, I would like you to imagine that you are a casting director preparing casting calls for this wonderful new work in which people with disabilities will be portrayed. You’re doing writeups of the characters for release to send out to agencies, or maybe you’re even preparing an open casting call.

Are you going to actively request that actors with disabilities try out for the roles? Or is that not important to you?

Judging from the current portrayal of disability on television, I’m going to bet that our fictional casting director is not going to actively pursue actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. Instead, they’re going to go for the crip drag. I was going to draw an analogy here, and ask: If you were a casting director casting a Black character, would you solicit Black actors? Or would that not be important to you? Except that I see blackface continues to be alive and well, so, apparently, the answer again is no, it’s not important that Asian actors play Asian characters, that Black actors play Black characters, that male actors play male characters, that disabled actors play characters with disabilities.

This is annoying.

It’s annoying, for one thing, because I would like to see more people with disabilities on my screen, and because I would like to see them specifically played by actors with disabilities. But no, it’s too hard to find disabled actors. Or, they’re too hard to work with. When an actual actor with a disability is allowed onto a television set playing a disabled character, it’s played like someone’s being done a huge favour, and aren’t we inclusive and progressive, casting a disabled actor to play this part!

I can think of only a handful of disabled characters I like. One is Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. Bonnie is Deaf, as is Shoshannah. One of the things that’s interesting about her character is that when Shoshannah tried out for the role, Bonnie was not written as Deaf. Apparently her reading was liked so much that they changed the character. And they did a pretty good job; Bonnie is a fully realized character, her Deafness is not a token, and in fact it proves to be an asset at times.

Bonnie shows how it’s possible to integrate a disabled character into a piece without making a big production out of it, without making it feel forced and fake, without being disrespectful. Her Deafness isn’t framed as a terrible tragedy or a magical special gift from God, it’s just a fact. It’s great to see other characters signing with her, instead of forcing her to read lips all the time, although it’s kind of unfortunate that the DP apparently thought it would be a good idea to not show the hands half the time during signing scenes. It’s great to see Bonnie saying “I’m Deaf, not stupid,” reminding people that she can read lips and that, therefore, it’s not a good idea to talk trash about her because you think she can’t understand you. (Aside from the fact in general that you shouldn’t be talking trash about people even when you know they aren’t around to understand.)

Deafness is part of what makes Bonnie Bonnie, and considering that the character wasn’t supposed to be Deaf at the start, I think that’s a pretty great accomplishment.

But…one disabled character does not a revolution make. Why is it so difficult to add characters with disabilities into the world of film and television, and once they’re there, why is it still acceptable to use temporarily able bodied actors in crip drag to play them, rather than, you know, seeking out disabled actors?

There are a lot of superbly talented actors with disabilities out there who do great work when they are allowed to do it. Some of them actually work more in roles for able-bodied characters, because that’s all that’s out there. Some of them might actually enjoy being able to portray disabled characters, were they given a chance.

I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.

And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.