Playing at disability: The numbers

Earlier this year, the Ruderman Foundation put out a study examining the depiction of disability on television. Keeping in mind that less than one percent of television roles depict disability in the first place, 95 percent of those roles were played by nondisabled people when the foundation looked at some of the top television shows. If this doesn’t appall you, it should, because this practice is so widespread as to be effectively ubiquitous, blandly accepted by fans and creators like.

The lack of representation of disability on TV in the first place is unacceptable — roughly 20 percent of the population identifies as disabled, and yet nowhere close to 20 percent of characters are disabled. When disability does appear, it’s often troped and painfully stereotyped, leaving us clinging to a handful of ‘good’ depictions. The lack of disability diversity means that the few characters we do see have to carry the bulk of the weight when it comes to depictions of disability, which inevitably leads to tensions and conflict.

Consistently deciding to cast nondisabled people in these roles is striking evidence of contempt — the industry views disability like an experience, or a job, not like an aspect of identity. That’s no doubt due at least in part to the popular medical model of disability in the US, which more or less positions disability that way. When people hear that the ‘politically correct’ way to talk about disability is in a fashion that divorces people of their disabled identities, they internalise the underlying messaging there.

It’s contemptuous of disabled viewers, who learn that apparently it’s fine for people who don’t share our experiences to depict them, and it’s contemptuous of disabled actors, who struggle to make it in Hollywood. If you have an evident impairment, you’re doomed to purpose-cast roles — you have to be Wheelchair User Number Two, or Blind Guy at the Cafe, because the idea of ability-neutral casting is alien and scary. Roles that don’t specify disability can still be played by a disabled actor, just like roles that don’t specify race can be played by someone of any race. And just as racebending plays a valuable cultural role, so too should cripbending.

So why do people keep doing this?

We couldn’t find anyone suitable for the role. If you take a look at casting calls, they often don’t explicitly invite disabled actors, or indicate that a character is disabled. Casting sites are not necessarily accessible. Casting directors don’t reach out to agents to ask them to propose disabled talent. Casting directors don’t look hard enough. To say, for example, that you can’t find any Deaf actresses for a role would come as a surprise to Marlee Matlin and Shoshannah Stern, among many others.

It would be too hard to work with an actual disabled person. You mean parts of your set might be inaccessible, you might need a sign language interpreter, you might need to accommodate a service animal? That it would be hard to work around a powerchair? That rehearsal spaces would need to be accessible? That someone with chronic fatigue might need breaks or a wheelchair to use between takes and while getting around the set? That you might need to make sure your scripts are screenreader accessible, or that the set is kept quiet and focused? I’m sorry, I appear to have mislaid my tiny violin.

The character becomes disabled, so we need them to be able to walk/see/hear/do something else that conflicts with our perception of their impairment. I don’t know if you’ve heard of something called ‘acting’? Apparently sighted people can pretend to be blind! Hearing people can pretend to be D/deaf or hard of hearing! Conversely, people with various impairments can play themselves pre-post impairment in many contexts — an amputee can work with the costume designer to  make sure her limb loss isn’t apparent, for example. I’ve also heard that you can use multiple actors for the same role at different stages of a character’s life, and that they have these things called ‘stunt doubles.’ S. Robert Morgan can play a sighted character, drawing upon the fact that he is, you know, a trained actor. Robert David Hall can play an amputee with greater or lesser degrees of impairment, depending on his role.

Well you can’t expect us to find an actor with this specific extremely rare impairment. Well, refusing to provide opportunities to disabled talent won’t help with that, but okay, you want to play this game? Why not find someone with similar and relatable experiences? Maybe you can’t find an actor with Marfan Syndrome, but you can probably find a wheelchair user with a connective tissue disorder if you bother to look. Maybe you can’t find someone who is totally blind, but you can find an actor with significant vision loss.

We’re afraid of doing it wrong. You’re not afraid of doing it wrong when you’re definitely doing it wrong by suggesting that it is possible to play at being disabled? Newsflash: You are already doing it wrong and yes, you will continue to do it wrong. A disabled actor can work with you on making a role stronger, but also, some disabled people still aren’t going to like how their disabilities, or the disability experience, are depicted. That’s okay. What matters is that you consciously address resources on trying.

This character is nonverbal/’profoundly disabled’/has a ‘low mental age.’ You should probably rethink the way you conceptualise things like intelligence, communication, and impairments, and consider the fact that there may be an actor who meets your needs — don’t assume that people who are ‘profoundly disabled,’ whatever that means, don’t act, have active lives, and interact with society. But again. Acting is a thing. A verbal autistic actor can play an autistic character who uses a communication board because she doesn’t speak, you know?

These are just a handful of the excuses people like to use to justify the practice of casting nondisabled actors in disabled roles, and it’s why our representation in Hollywood continues to be so pathetic. There’s no reason things should still be this way after decades of demanding more visibility, and more respect. The fact that they’ve remained is a lovely testimony to the social power of disablism.

Image: Wasi Daniju, Flickr