Lennard Davis, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote an interesting blog post recently about how wrong he feels it is that characters with disabilities on television and in movies aren’t being played by actors with disabilities.
Actors with Disabilities in TV and Movies
For what it’s worth, I’ve wanted to blog on the same thing for a long time. But I don’t watch enough current television to know which shows feature characters with disabilities and if they’re played by actors with disabilities. I’m aware that there’s a student on “Glee” in a wheelchair (played by an actor without disabilities), and a boy on “Parenthood” that has Asperger’s Syndrome (and I’m unsure whether the actor who plays him actually has Asperger’s). I can think of some characters from cancelled shows that had disabilities, but the only one I could say for sure was actually played by an actor with a disability was Corky on “Life Goes On” (played by a young man with Down’s Syndrome).
Movies are easier. I can think of lots of movies in which actors without disabilities play characters with disabilities: Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Juliet Lewis in “The Other Sister”, Sean Penn in “I Am Sam”, Gary Sinise in “Forrest Gump”…and that’s just off the top of my head.
Davis did his research thoroughly, though:
“The facts are that there are about 600 repeating characters in prime-time television, but only six characters are disabled; only one disabled actor plays any of those roles — even though disabled people make up almost 20 percent of the population. In most films, there will be no disabled actors, and when there is a disabled character, it almost always will be played by a non-disabled actor.”
Davis compares it to white men doing blackface, in the process taking away roles from actors with disabilities that really want a career in acting. And for those who think that’s going a little too far, consider how true that really is.
Very Few Roles for Actors with Disabilities
I’ve always loved the theatre. I was very involved with my high school’s drama club, I went to musical theatre camp every summer, and I got involved with my community’s little theatre group when they did musicals. I took dance lessons, and some singing lessons. My sister was the same way. Our parents took us to as much theatre as they could afford, because we obviously loved it.
In university, everyone was much better at theatre arts than I was, and I couldn’t get a part in anything. But I still went to see everything that the drama department put on. I took drama courses.
Not long after becoming mobile enough to get around reasonably with my cane in my home community, I went to see a high school production of “Grease”. After it ended, I stayed behind for a bit and walked around on the stage. It suddenly hit me that the only play I’d read that had a character with physical disabilities was “The Glass Menagerie”, and that I probably wouldn’t be performing again.
I started to cry.
Davis’ point is that there aren’t many roles for actors with disabilities, and we don’t need competition with actors who don’t have disabilities for the small number of roles that do exist. I agree. However…
Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful…
…if, as a person with a disability, I could walk with my cane into an audition, do it, and have someone say, “You’re perfect for this part, so now the character uses a cane?”
Uses a wheelchair?
Has a guide dog?
Or, conversely, someone with no disabilities auditions for a part where the character has disabilities, but the director likes him or her so much that she decides not give the person disabilities?
It potentially changes the story, yes…but theatre people do that all the time. They switch a character’s gender, or the time period, or the location, to see how it changes the story, and it brings out sides of the play that helps everyone to appreciate it even more. Who’s to say it wouldn’t work for television or movies?
See the person first, not the disability. Very simple.
All That Being Said…
I appreciate Lennard Davis’ “clarion call” to cast actors with disabilities in roles where the character has a disability. Until we get can get to that place where “people first” is truly a fundamental value, it’s a way of showing actors with disabilities that we value their contributions and of getting them more employment in the entertainment community.