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Trevor Noah Realizes Disabled Roles Should Go to Disabled Actors Like Advocates Have Been Saying All Along

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Last Thursday, Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” shared he stumbled upon a conversation online about able-bodied actors playing disabled characters. After seeing the perspective from a wheelchair user, Noah said he believes disabled actors should play disabled characters. His point about disabled roles is one the disability community has been making for years.

The conversation centered around the new movie “The Upside” starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. In the film, Cranston, who is able-bodied, plays a disabled actor. There was outrage online about Cranston playing a disabled person. Noah said his first instinct was to think we are going too far.

“Actors are going to act,” he said. “If we get everyone who is the thing to be the thing then it is not acting, then it’s not the thing, it is a documentary. That’s the whole point of acting.”

However, Noah said there was one comment that grabbed his attention. It was from a disabled actor who uses a wheelchair. Noah said the actor’s response was cogent and beautiful. “He completely opened my eyes to a perspective I had never thought of,” Noah said.

According to Noah, the disabled actor explained that when he saw the one time there is a leading role for a person in a wheelchair, he thinks this could be the one time he has all the tools. The actor wonders, “Do I have a shot at playing it?” They never call disabled people to play able-bodied actors, but they often call on able-bodied actors to play disabled characters. Noah said he had never thought about it that way.

“It is powerful, because you don’t think about representation. You don’t think about how important it is for people to see themselves on screen in a real way,” Noah said. “If you are a person in a wheelchair, how many movies come up with the lead actor in a wheelchair? Virtually none. I have to try to understand that a little bit more.”

This isn’t new information for those in the disability community, and it’s an issue that comes up every time an able-bodied actor is cast to play a disabled character. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, only 2 percent of TV characters have disabilities, and of those, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors.

“People with disabilities are beyond underrepresented in the media — we are excluded from playing ourselves and telling our own community’s stories,” Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, said.

Deaf actress and advocate Marlee Matlin is one of only two people with physical disabilities to ever win an Oscar, although several non-disabled actors have received an Oscar for playing disabled characters. Matlin spoke about how important disability representation is at a Ruderman Family Foundation event. She said:

Like the eventual realization that came about that white actors playing characters who are black or Asian or Native American was inauthentic and simply wrong and racist, it is clear to us that having actors playing disabled is inauthentic and to many, particularly in the deaf community, culturally offensive.

A commenter on Facebook responded to the clip from Noah’s show and said, “People who don’t understand or don’t try to understand representation and why it matters have never had to worry about being represented.”

Others responded on Twitter, pointing out that the disability community has been having this conversation for years, thanking Noah for bringing the issue to light and asking him to invite people with disabilities onto his show:

Banner image screenshot of “The Daily Show” clip.

Originally published: January 14, 2019
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