There’s a slow and growing awareness among the nondisabled community that, to be blunt, we see your cripface (sometimes in a metaphorical sense in the case of blind and low-vision people). Some nondisabled people are even aware that we’re actually kind of over it, and in fact get vehemently angry about it. We’re tired of seeing nondisabled people take to wheelchairs and crutches, we’re done with people pretending to be blind, we’re over people ‘acting’ disability like it’s something that can be taken on and off. We’re finished with a world in which Hollywood not only thinks this is okay but pushes talented disabled actors out and acts like they’re just not available whenever film and television productions are being cast.
Historically, the only disabled roles reliably cast with disabled actors were those in which the disability was so evident that it would be impossible to crip up for it. Namely, little people and people with certain intellectual disabilities, particularly Down syndrome. It’s pretty damn hard to fake being a person with dwarfism with any degree of success if you are not, in fact, a little person. It’s also likewise pretty fucking challenging to act like you have Down syndrome when the condition has some distinctive physical characteristics, mannerisms, and tics. It’s going to be obvious that you’re playing a role, and apparently even nondisabled audiences stop short of accepting that sort of thing.
But when it comes to physical impairments, everything seems to be fair game despite repeated protest from the disability community. Not that people are necessarily doing anything about it, but they’re starting to be aware. However, there’s another aspect of cripface that’s really frustrating me, and it surrounds nonevident disabilities. For some reason, even as Hollywood and the public are starting to wonder if maybe they should be more circumspect about casting, they don’t really consider nonevident (or allegedly invisible) disabilities to be terribly important. After all, anyone can play an autistic or someone with a mental health condition, right? It just requires some coaching and then everything will be dandy, and really, you need only research if you feel like it, no pressure or anything.
The thing is that these kinds of disabilities are also not just roles to be taken on and off. Aside from the fact that often depictions are horribly offensive and frustrating and awful as written, having these kinds of conditions just isn’t entirely in the mind. Autistic roles are among the most common (and the most frustrating), with allistic actors thinking that autism just means being some sort of bizarre genius who maybe rocks a bit and has facial tics. Autism and the experience of autism is much more complicated, and also highly variable for different people. The version of autism presented in film and television is very repetitive and specific, and it may give people false confidence about playing such roles ‘accurately,’ but it doesn’t reflect the actual experience of many viewers.
Mental health conditions, too, are not just in the mind of the character and can’t be slipped into like other identities. Being depressed isn’t like being a soda jerk — you can research for, prepare, and really embrace one role, but the other involves experiences beyond your ken. The scores of nonevident disabilities, like mental illnesses, learning disorders, chronic pain conditions, and so forth that are played by nondisabled actors is beyond infuriating — especially when many talk in platitudes in pressers and discuss how ‘awful’ it must be for people really living with those conditions. Like, say, actors deprived of those roles because someone wanted to cast a nondisabled person instead?
With physical impairments, it’s easy to engage in disability advocacy and better casting. If a character is an amputee, demand that an amputee take the role (this is tricky with characters like Arizona Robbins, who was likely cast long before the writers on Grey’s Anatomy decided that she would acquire a disability — in her case, being played by a nondisabled actress isn’t entirely unreasonable). If a character is a wheelchair user, ask for a wheelchair user to play it. If a character is paralysed or has spinal muscular atrophy or any number of physical and evident impairments, there are actors available to play such roles — and there would be even more if casting for them routinely involved disabled actors, creating clear career paths for disabled people interested in acting. (Hey, while you’re at it, have you considered casting disabled people in roles not specifically written for crips? Why shouldn’t James Bond be an amputee?)
With nonevident roles, things are a bit more challenging. People shouldn’t be obliged to discuss or disclose their diagnoses during casting or to general audiences — in strict point of fact, with at least some castings, we don’t necessarily know it’s cripface, particularly with mental illness. Given the incidence of mental illness in the United States, especially depression, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some of these roles are actually being played by people who share those disabilities.
But what about casting people who have been open about things like mental illness, chronic pain, autism, learning disabilities, and so forth in such roles? Doing so sends a clear message that Hollywood is listening to the disability community and is interested in good, honest representation. It also might make other stars feel more comfortable about coming out with nonevident disabilities — if they see people working even though they’ve been open about stigmatised conditions, maybe they’ll feel more courageous about coming out too, and maybe that will spread, changing social attitudes about such conditions.
With some roles, we may never know — and we’re going to have to be okay with that — but I’d argue that where and when possible, disabled roles should be played by actors who share that disability, or who have similar experiences from their own lives to draw upon. Someone with a T4 injury knows more about having a T9 injury than a nondisabled person. Someone with depression knows more about bipolar disorder than someone without a mental health condition. Someone with a learning disability knows more about cognitive and intellectual disabilities than someone who does not. These are experiences that must be felt, not learned.
Why can’t Hollywood admit that?