By: Aliocha Perriard-Abdoh
Historically, there have always been issues with how certain groups have or have not been represented in pop culture. This doesn’t just affect characters; it affects casting. Recently, such controversy was stirred up in response to a 2016 low-budget indie film, Blind, where Alec Baldwin is cast as a novelist who lost his sight.
Although Baldwin is a terrific actor, there is one glaring issue with casting him in this role. He is not blind! This fact incensed the Ruderman Family Foundation, a prominent disability activist organization, in particular, who referred to it as “treating disability as a costume,” among other things.
Able-bodied actors playing disabled characters should be more of a scandal than it currently is. But it isn’t, because it it happens all the time. This is not something of which to be proud.
Rarely does the film industry grant communities the right to self-representation if they can get away with not doing so, and the disabled community is no exception. We need to recognize this trend and start fighting for actors with disabilities to have a better shot at representing their own lives and experiences in film.
Consider the old hit TV show Glee. It focuses a lot of energy on including and representing various demographics, especially the LGBTQ+ community, which is honestly great. But when they cast wheelchair-bound Artie Abrams, they chose able-bodied Kevin McHale to portray the role of the main character with disabilities.
Glee would never have considered casting a man as Rachel Berry, the show’s female protagonist — or a white actress in blackface as Mercedes Jones, a black woman who has a serious set of pipes on her and can sing like nobody’s business. There’s a reason we left the ban on women portraying women in the Shakespearean age, and refuse to accept blackface as an acceptable way to portray black characters.
It really is disappointing that roles such as Artie’s are still being awarded to able-bodied actors, when there are plenty of disabled actors who could play those roles true-to-life.
Things are slowly changing as more and more disabled actors claim opportunities to represent their own community. Breaking Bad star, RJ Mitte, has cerebral palsy and brilliantly plays Walter White Jr., son of the show’s main character, with whom he shares the condition.
Switched at Birth did a fantastic job. The show focuses on the story of two young girls who find out in their early teens that they were in fact switched at birth. The viewers get a glimpse into the deaf community as one of the girls, Daphne, is deaf. All the deaf characters on the show are played by deaf actors, and famed actress Marlee Matlin makes occasional appearances. Matlin is the “youngest person to win an Academy Award for best performance in a leading role, despite the disadvantages of being deaf,” according to Balder and Dash.
With such great examples, it’s hard for Hollywood to deny that disabled roles should be given to the many talented disabled actors who wish to represent their community. Despite claims that big names are needed for films and TV shows to take off, or that directors are casting purely on acting ability, it is undeniable that the necessary talent can easily be drawn from the communities whose stories one is trying to tell.
Women should be represented by women, people of colour have the right to be represented by people of colour, and people with disabilities have the right to be represented onscreen by people with disabilities. It really is that simple.