We often have the radio on at home in the mornings to keep up with news and events. I was working at my home desk recently when I heard an astonishing comment from an on-air guest on a program broadcast by our local radio station.
The guest was discussing the world of movies and plays, and the conversation moved to acting. This guy, who works in the business, spoke about the qualities of a good actor. The topic wasn’t related to disability, but this person brought up the subject anyway. He commented that a person with a disability often thinks they should be allowed to try out for the part of a disabled person. But, he added, “they don’t understand, this is why it’s called acting.”
I was stunned. Like peeling the layers of an onion, I started thinking about the ramifications of his statement. Maybe I had missed something. But I concluded that this attitude highlights a genuine problem in society. You may think I’m a little dramatic, but let’s peel back the layers.
The first layer is a general disregard for a person with a disability in the role of a disabled person. Is this because of a belief that an able-bodied actor can play the role better? Don’t actors bring their own life experiences and observations to their work? Or is an actor with a disability less capable than one without a disability of acting out conversations and portraying emotions?
I thought of “Breaking Bad” actor RJ Mitte, and his memorable role as a character with cerebral palsy in the hit TV series. Mitte also has cerebral palsy, and his skill in his role and acting abilities are an example that refutes the statement from the radio guest. I believe that another actor with no experience of cerebral palsy would have been unable to portray the character with such skill.
Unfortunately, attitudes like that radio guest’s are pervasive and have led to a crisis in Hollywood over the industry’s lack of diversity. As studio executives and casting agents come under pressure to broaden screen representations, they are lacking the full flavor of diversity. While Hollywood is focused on gender balance and providing more and better roles for people of color, it is missing the bigger picture. It harks back to an era when white actors wore makeup to play Native Americans in Westerns.
Let’s go to the second layer of the onion. We have a person in the business pushing back on an individual in a wheelchair playing the role of a person in a wheelchair. It sounds crazy. So what if the screenwriter intended the part to be played by an able-bodied person, how would casting agents respond to a person with a disability wanting to audition for the role? Let’s say it’s a love story and someone in a wheelchair rolls in, or an actor with a prosthetic leg. What do you think their reactions would be?
By now, you might be starting to understand my issue. But you are missing the third layer of the onion. What happens in our society when this thinking is as pervasive as it seems? Or when an employer has a job opening?
To give you an example, let me play myself in two different scenarios. In the first one, I arrive for an interview at a small office building. It has three steps in front and no handrails. I can’t enter through the front, so I walk around to the alley and knock on the back door. When someone answers, I struggle to step up onto the stoop to enter the building.
In the second scenario, I arrive for an interview at a beautiful, modern building with elevators and accessible doorways. When I get to the interview room, I ask for a higher chair or one without arms, because I will struggle to rise from the chairs in the room.
We have come to expect these types of scenarios. What outcomes can we hope for in mainstream society when you get comments like those I heard on the radio from someone representing a supposedly more liberal environment?
By the way, these examples are what happens in Hollywood. But it isn’t just about the actors. People with disabilities are under-represented in all roles. People with disabilities looking for jobs in Hollywood and in society feel the same rejection. And the deeper layers affect all areas of life, including social, housing, and entertainment opportunities.
Let’s continue the work of effecting positive change for all.
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