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The Problem With The Rock's Quest to Fix Hollywood's Lack of Disability Representation

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Hollywood has a problem with disability representation. Characters with disabilities are rare in film and TV, and when they exist, they are almost always played by able-bodied actors. For years, people with disabilities have been saying “This is not OK.” We want to be represented in film and TV, and we want to see disabled actors playing disabled characters. But still, Hollywood refuses to listen. Hollywood continues to make excuses. As I write this, the latest controversy is over Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson playing an amputee in “Skyscraper,” but sadly it won’t be the last. Instead of allowing this trend to continue, it’s time to start holding the entertainment industry accountable.

One of the most common excuses for casting an able-bodied actor as a disabled character is to make the movie “bankable.” Directors are afraid a film will flop without a big name in the lead, so they don’t cast disabled actors. Disabled actors, people argue, can’t carry a film because no one has ever heard of them. But it’s a catch-22. The reason no one has heard of them is that they rarely get hired even for small roles. They face discrimination from the start, and never get the first big break they deserve.

Before we could smell what The Rock was cooking, Johnson was a college football player and little-known professional wrestler. When he signed to WWE his fame got a major boost, eventually launching his action star career. Other A-listers started in bit parts; it’s always funny to watch old TV shows and suddenly spot a waiter with a couple of lines who is now a mega-star. Somehow, somewhere, somebody gave these people a chance. Actors with disabilities aren’t getting the same opportunities to prove themselves, so they don’t become famous and don’t get cast as the lead in big-budget movies. It may be true that no currently working disabled actor could raise “Skyscraper” to blockbuster status, but the blame lays entirely at the CGI prosthetic feet of Hollywood.

Discrimination in the entertainment industry is so pervasive, performers with chronic or mental illnesses often keep their conditions secret out of fear it will hurt their careers. And because actors with visible disabilities are largely invisible in the industry, directors, producers, and audiences either think they don’t exist or underestimate their abilities. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people say “but how would a disabled actor handle 12 hour days on a film set?” as if all people with disabilities are frail shrinking violets. Over 1,500 veterans lost one or more limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely a film set with its air-conditioned trailers and on-site medics would be relaxing in comparison to months of trekking through the desert in combat gear. Besides, producers are used to scheduling shoots around child actors who can only work limited hours. Where needed, planning longer breaks and shorter days is not an unreasonable accommodation.

Let’s look at some numbers here. One in five people in the United States has a disability — 56.7 million people. That means to fairly represent disability, every TV show with at least five main cast members (in other words, pretty much all of them) should have at least one major character with a disability. Roughly one in three would have a disability that is visible or apparent when interacting with the character — such as a visual impairment, hearing loss or deafness, limb amputation, developmental disability, or use of a mobility aid such as a cane, walker or wheelchair. Given that there are about 500 scripted shows currently being produced, and virtually all of them have at least five major characters, that means we should have approximately 500 steadily working disabled actors right now. Out of those, about 166 would have a visible or sensory disability, while the rest would have invisible conditions such as diabetes, HIV, lupus, or mental illness.

Can you think of anywhere close to that many disabled characters on current TV shows or in movies? I can’t. I can probably count the number of series regular characters with physical, sensory or developmental disabilities on both hands — and several of them are actors playing disabled, or “cripping up” as the disability community calls it, wearing disability like a costume. As this review of “Skyscraper” written by an amputee illustrates, people with disabilities want to see real disabled actors in film and TV, and when they’re absent, it harms the story. Many of us feel the same way about this as the transgender community felt when Scarlett Johansson was cast as a trans man — frustrated and angry about constantly being misrepresented. I wish more actors would have the change of heart she did, and recognize that taking roles from actors in marginalized communities is deeply harmful.

After the release of “Die Hard With a (Fake) Fake Leg,” Johnson called for disability inclusion through a video published by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

I do believe Johnson means well, and he’s trying. He has practiced what he preaches, visiting rehabilitation patients recovering from limb loss and partnering with XBox to promote their new accessible gaming controller. His character in “Skyscraper” is a positive representation of a person with a disability and a role model for amputees. The film is generating conversation about how much people with disabilities are capable of accomplishing, and that is a good thing.

It’s important that we acknowledge the genuine good Johnson is doing. However, the fact remains that he’s just made millions of dollars playing a role that could and should have gone to an actor with a disability. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Johnson and writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber discuss consulting with real amputee Jeff Glasbrenner to get his perspective on “Skyscraper.” Glasbrenner asserts that he could and would do whatever it takes to save his family, just like the main character in the film. So why didn’t Johnson and Thurber take the next logical step and cast him or another amputee in the role? By all accounts Johnson’s portrayal of the character is respectful, but how can you truly respect a community while taking away an opportunity for its members to represent themselves?

Johnson is clearly well-intentioned, but his actions so far are somewhat misguided. He claims to have learned a lot about the disability community but stops just short of apologizing for cripping up. He doesn’t pledge to never take a role from a disabled actor again or promise to demand authentic portrayals of disability in his future films. It’s great that he’s speaking up, but he needs to keep learning and take his actions a step further. As an extremely popular actor, he has the ability to spur real change. But will he?

At the 2018 Oscars, Frances McDormand called upon her fellow actors to set up inclusion riders — a section of their contract requiring that productions include diverse cast and crew members. If every major actor carried an inclusion rider requiring authentic casting of characters with disabilities, I believe we would quickly see a massive increase in positive disability representation. Some of those talented disabled actors would inevitably rise to stardom, gaining enough popularity to carry a big-budget film with no worries about “bankability.” Have you drafted your inclusion rider yet, Dwayne?

Inclusion riders are a good first step, but producers and directors need to take initiative on their own, without being compelled by a contract. I propose that every film and TV program follow this simple mantra to change the picture of disability representation:

Disability is part of our story.

Part of our story means an actor with a disability should play a major role in every TV show or movie. That character’s disability does not need to be central to the plot, but it should be acknowledged and respected as an aspect of their life. The character should not be a token or stereotype, and the inclusion of one person does not let writers, directors and producers off the hook from including additional disabled characters where appropriate. In addition, industry professionals with disabilities should be on the production team, contributing their skills and helping ensure disability is portrayed authentically.

There are exceptions of course, such as a movie based on a true story or a show based on a novel in which none of the characters have disabilities. And there are a few situations where it would be difficult or impossible to cast a disabled actor as a disabled character, but they are rarer than Hollywood claims. And if disabled actors were cast the other 75 plus percent of the time, the disability community would be far less upset about it.

There’s no excuse not to feature an actor with some kind of disability in the vast majority of reality shows and original scripted programming. The no-nonsense district attorney in your crime procedural can be a wheelchair user. The jovial TV dad on your sitcom can have diabetes. The handsome heartthrob on your teen-oriented drama can be living with bipolar disorder. The surgeon on your medical show can actually be autistic, instead of faking it. The amputee in your action movie can be a real hero who lost a limb serving our country.

If this level of representation sounds excessive, if you believe it would stifle creative freedom — think again. Whatever world you want to invent, whatever story you want to tell, people with disabilities are part of it. No matter what a character has to do, someone with a disability has done it for real — or could if they were given the opportunity. Representing disability accurately in TV and film does not restrict creativity — it only steers storytelling away from the use of disability as a narrative crutch to evoke fear, pity or inspiration. Real people who use crutches are capable of much more than that.

Hollywood seems to think including disability requires making the story about disability, but that simply isn’t true. Does casting a black actor mean that his race must constantly be discussed? Of course not, and it’s the same with disability. Disabilities can open up new avenues for storytelling, but they don’t have to dominate the narrative. Authentic disability-focused shows like “Speechless” and “Switched At Birth” are great, but inclusive shows with disability as a minor plot point are equally important. “Quantico” didn’t need to become “The Good Deaf FBI Agent” to add Marlee Matlin to the cast, just incorporate ASL into the conversations. Daryl “Chill” Mitchell’s character on “NCIS New Orleans” uses his hacker skills to help catch the bad guy just in the nick of time without his wheelchair being a big deal. Robert David Hall’s medical examiner character on “CSI” spent most of his time solving murders, not talking about his prosthetic legs. Characters with disabilities make visual storytelling stronger and richer, and we need more of them.

Disability is woven into the fabric of life, one color of thread in a complex quilt. Without it, the design is less beautiful, less real. We are the only minority any person can join at any time. We are Black, Latino, Native, Asian and white. We are LGBTQ and proud. We are immigrants and refugees. We want to see ourselves represented on screen in ways that reflect our diversity and our humanity. We are part of every community and we are part of every story. See us.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Eva Rinaldi

Originally published: July 16, 2018
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