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Casting Disabled Actors Is About More Than Just Inclusion

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Throughout my life I have come across multiple obstacles due to having a disability. Now as a disabled person who has a job, I want to help other disabled people who can’t hold traditional jobs due to the limitations of their disabilities find employment and succeed.

Since I know disabled people come in all shapes and sizes, I believe in order to do the disabled community justice, it is necessary to show more than just two physical disabilities and more than three invisible disabilities in the media. We need to also have those characters be authentically portrayed by actors who have the same condition, and be in roles other than “inspiration porn” and one-time guest stars in medical dramas — as there is more to a character than their disability. Disabled people are more than just one-dimensional caricatures that are heard of but rarely seen, and they are not solely comprised of weaknesses.

One thing I think people in charge of casting don’t understand is that some disabled people go into show business and acting because their brains are wired differently, or their disabilities prevent them from communicating effectively in an office or sales setting, typing at the speed of 40 words per minute, doing manual labor, driving for Uber etc. While we have come a long way in the past few decades, the fact that about 95 percent of the unemployed disabled people I know are unemployed because of limitations related to their disability goes to show that not everyone has the ability to pick and choose what jobs they can do. Having career options is a privilege, not a given.

I believe non-disabled people taking on disabled roles (commonly referred to as “cripping up”) needs to be treated as an unemployment issue rather than solely a matter of social inclusion or pleasing “snowflakes.” If we make it clear that non-disabled people are taking jobs away from disabled people by accepting disabled roles, we can see how cripping up is part of a larger pattern of discrimination against underprivileged groups in the entertainment industry. It also seems as if the people who have the ability to donate money and create jobs don’t realize that disabled people need opportunities and resources to succeed, rather than researchers developing a magical solution to cure their problems.

An added injustice I have been seeing more of recently is adding a disabled character just to bring awareness that disabilities exist. After the creation of a disabled character, the studio’s publicity team uses words like “groundbreaking” while treating disability as something to profit from and leaving disabled people out of just about every other aspect of production. It seems as if Hollywood favorites who take on minority characters don’t realize they can close the wage gap they claim to be fighting against by not accepting every role offered to them. We hear actors apologizing for accepting disabled roles, but nothing from the casting directors who refuse to do outreach to the disability community and seek out disabled actors.

When non-disabled people play disabled characters, the staff and employees involved in the production are subconsciously giving viewers the idea that real disabled people accomplishing things is a fairy tale. Otherwise why wouldn’t disabled actors be playing these characters? And why are there so few disabled characters whose disability is not the focus of the plot? If a character’s physical abilities/features are not a defining factor of who they are, no harm should come with casting someone with a physical disability in that role.

For the sake of being genuine, I would rather see a few disabled characters played by disabled actors instead of a bunch of disabled characters played by non-disabled award-winning stars. After seeing disability rights companies using loopholes to avoid hiring disabled people, I believe it isn’t just bigoted CEOs who need a wakeup call. Involvement from the disabled community should mean giving and creating jobs for disabled people instead of only getting the parents and so-called spokespeople involved — as most of us are fully capable of speaking for ourselves and can work if given proper accommodations.

In the entertainment industry, involvement from within the disabled community should mean getting people of all disabilities involved and cast instead of including some disabled characters yet limiting the variety of disabilities depicted. According to the 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report, in the United States, people with physical disabilities outnumber people with autism, but the TV shows and movies I have watched over the past five years seem to feature far more autistic characters. This could lead to people with physical disabilities feeling nonexistent, unworthy of acceptance and without characters they can relate to onscreen. Currently autism seems to be the “popular” disability to feature, and while it’s important to see many (and more realistic) autistic characters, scriptwriters should not ignore or write out other conditions such as migraines or dyspraxia because they see autism as somehow trendy.

While there are arguments such as, “There are no disabled people in the public eye that could be added into a show and/or movie franchise,” as an excuse to not cast actors with disabilities, it shouldn’t be hard to search for talented disabled actors on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube etc. Excuses like “They were not disabled at the beginning of the story,” do not wash either; as other commenters have said, if we can fake a disability, we can use CGI and camera tricks to make the disabled actor appear able-bodied before the life-altering event that caused the disability. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to use camera tricks and strategic placing to hide the extent of his disability from photographers, news crews and the public throughout his presidency in the 1930s and 1940s.

While “seize the day” and “take every chance you get” can be good mottos to live by when trying to make a living as an actor, I actually turned down the chance to play an autistic character when I was in the middle of an employment gap. I thought the neurotypical writers weren’t doing me and the rest of the people in the autism community justice by adding in a poorly written autistic character solely for the sake of not appearing discriminatory. In a New York Times article titled “Peter Dinklage Was Smart to Say No,” Dinklage went on the record saying he has been disgusted by roles that are insensitive towards people with dwarfism, and not accepting offensive roles sends the message that disabled people have had enough of roles that exploit them.

I may not be a genius, but I’m smart enough to tell the difference between genuine diversity versus “Let’s not get sued by the ACLU” diversity — and diverse roles that paint minorities in a negative light are often worse than no diversity at all. While a diversity quota is a good thing to strive for in theory, I think disabled characters are more likely to be well-written if they are in the story for a genuine purpose, or if they are based on a real person rather than created just to meet a quota. Despite what a studio’s publicist may claim, I don’t believe they are necessarily helping the disabled community by just adding a disabled character for the sake of having one.

In order to get one step closer to the goal of genuine inclusion, I believe we as a community should partner with the ACLU, similar organizations, and influential disabled celebrities to propose a rule stating that casting cis, white, non-disabled people in minority roles will disqualify movies, TV shows, musicals, web series etc. from winning any major awards like Oscars and Emmys. Because of the way show business works, I believe the possibility of being excluded from award ceremonies due to inauthentic casting will be a bigger incentive for change than protests and boycotts.

The success of movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther,” along with failed Oscar bait films featuring inauthentic casting like “Aloha,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and “Wonderstruck” demonstrates that lack of authenticity is becoming taboo and it can easily lead to a lack of ticket sales. While change will not come overnight, we need to start making efforts now in order for “cripping up,” “transface” and whitewashing to become things of the past.

Getty image by Bet Noire.

Originally published: March 4, 2019
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