‘Before’ shots aren’t an excuse for nondisabled actors

There’s a slew of reasons why people insist that it’s necessary to keep casting nondisabled people in disabled roles despite repeated criticism from the disability community, but there’s one that comes up a lot that is worth deconstructing: The claim that a production needs a nondisabled actor for the purpose of flashbacks, ‘before’ sequences, or ‘miracles’ where the character is suddenly nondisabled. That last is particularly loaded, so let’s focus on the first two.

Here’s how the logic goes: Anjali, our intrepid heroine, may be described as a character who uses a wheelchair, but in some parts of the film/television series she actually needs to be able to walk, because she has a progressive disability or she acquired her injury, and we need to see how she was ‘before.’ That might take place in the form of flashbacks, or as part of the primary narrative — she acquires her disability on screen.

There are two problems with this, and one is about lack of imagination and storytelling, while the other betrays a fundamental lack of understanding about the disabled experience.

Let’s start with the second, because in a way, it’s easier. It’s extremely common in film and television production to show characters at different stages of their lives, and this is accomplished through the use of multiple actors and/or CGI. It’s considered totally reasonable to have several actors playing someone who grows dramatically older (or younger) over the course of a production, for example — we accept that the 12-year-old version of a 40-year-old character is going to be played by a different actor. We also accept the use of body doubles to handle not just stunts an actor can’t perform, but also scenes where having a stand-in is fine (an actor is exhausted after umpteen takes, or there’s some technical issue, or the actor isn’t available for fill-in coverage, whatever).

It is commonplace in film and television production, in other words, for several actors to represent the same character. Why do people act as though this is shocking and beyond the pale for disabled characters? Because people don’t understand the disabled experience — they think of disability as a character add-on, rather than as an integral part of who someone is, how that person moves through the world, how that person interacts with others. If you understand disability as a lived experience, not an accessory, you see how it’s not feasible to have nondisabled people acting disabled for film and television purposes. And you can also see how a stunt — like walking, for example — can just as easily be performed by a double, possibly with the help of some artful makeup, framing, or CGI.

There’s also a fundamental lack of imagination here: Why is it important to show people ‘before’? Because nondisabled people are fascinated with disability and they like to envision it as a tragedy, that’s why. Because when you see a character ‘brought down’ or you see the ‘missed opportunity’ of, say, a little girl who loves riding horses but falls and ends up needing to use a wheelchair for mobility (because paraequestrian athletes don’t actually exist), you ‘connect’ with the character better. Film and television creators want to show progressive disability or the turning point that shifts someone’s disability status, whether from the outset (‘this will be a show about someone who has a progressive disability’) or to spice things up (‘our ratings are tanking, let’s have a car crash’).

People like process stories. They like journeys. This framing in film and television production is what draws people to ‘disability stories.’ They don’t want a story about someone who is settled into their disability and is going about the work of their life. They don’t want a story that’s not About Disability: If someone on screen is disabled, by gum, that person should show us how they got that way so everyone can have a good cry about it. It’s incredibly rare to see disabled characters like, for example, Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. She’s a lively, full-fledged, complicated, interesting person, who is also Deaf. She doesn’t ‘happen’ to be Deaf — her Deafness plays an integral role in who she is and how she interacts with the world (and in fact the character was adjusted after casting because they like Stern’s audition so much). We don’t need to see Bonnie’s Deafness Journey because this isn’t a show about Deaf identity, it’s a show about the end of the world, and Deaf people exist at the end of the world just like they do everywhere else.

There’s also the issue of productions claiming that it’s critical to have a nondisabled actor who can walk/see/hear/whatever in ‘miracle cure’ storylines or ‘dream sequences.’ This attitude is fundamentally disablist, betraying the notion that everyone who is disabled wishes they weren’t, and these kinds of sequences are a form of wish fulfillment for producers, not disabled people. They reinforce the notion that disability is the worst thing ever and no one would want to be disabled, could want to be disabled, should want to be disabled. These scenes shouldn’t exist, or if they do, someone should be flipping the trope and playing with it — the parathlete who has a nightmare that they wake up nondisabled, for example, thus destroying everything they have been working for over the course of years or decades of training and competition. (I very much doubt a nondisabled creator could handle a storyline like this responsibly, of course.)

We don’t ‘need’ nondisabled actors for these kinds of scenes because they shouldn’t exist, but if they do and someone thinks it’s really imperative, again, we have a body double option, allowing a disabled actor to play the role that was allegedly written for a disabled person, while a body double can act in scenes where the disabled actor is physically or cognitively unable to do so — just as is the case with nondisabled actors and their own doubles.

Pushing back on the pathetic arguments used to defend the casting of nondisabled actors in disabled roles is important, because if we don’t do it, it’s going to keep on happening.

Image: PTR Tennis, Flickr