Disability in the Acting Profession

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How Do You Feel About Disability in Your Front Room?

I was recently chatting with a friend about a documentary I had been watching. I knew the subject matter was something that really interested her, so was surprised that she had not engaged with it at all. When I asked why, her response really saddened me:

“Oh, I watched the trailer, but (the presenter) is so unattractive I couldn’t watch it. She really puts me off!”

So a woman struggles to watch another articulate, intelligent woman on the basis of her looks? If this is her view, then maybe this is why casting directors find it so difficult to cast disabled actors in meaningful roles.

The current position

It’s great to see disabled actors such as Liz Carr (Silent Witness) and Cherylee Houston (Coronation Street) in major roles, but they are in the minority. The US magazine Variety reported in 2016 that able-bodied actors played 95% of disabled characters in the country’s top ten television shows.

The ongoing argument that there are too many able-bodied actors playing disabled characters is often cited as an easy route to Oscar status (think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) Although we are seeing a shift of attitudes on the small screen, the film studios need to do more.

Equity UK (the actors union) is currently running an equality and inclusivity campaign, Play Fair. This looks to challenge casting perceptions, encourage more incidental casting of minority actors and to move away from the trend of using able-bodied actors in disabled roles. More information on this campaign can be found on Equity’s website: www.equity.org.uk/campaigns/play-fair  

Equity also has a Deaf and Disabled Members Council, which represents members and will take action on discrimination relevant to the profession. They can be reached at disabilitycommittee@equity.org.uk
But to go back to my earlier question – are our own attitudes a barrier to change?

How can we change?

Several people have mentioned to me how moved they were by the Silent Witness episode aired on BBC 1 on 30 January. It also provoked a debate on Twitter, some questioning the realism of the episode, others flagging the need for casting more disabled actors:

In this episode we saw abuse of both older people and disabled people. Both are vulnerable groups, their independence and control taken from them. Maybe it’s a little too real, and that’s what keeps disabled actors off our screens.

I think, for a vast majority (and particularly the acting industry) disability is still very much connected to the medical model, where physical limitations are prioritised over the individual. We only see the disability. If a disabled person has a job, a family, travels etc. they are seen as exceptions, rather than the norm. This is nothing that hasn’t been said before, but maybe some of our own fears and insecurities echoed in our minds as we watch Clarissa being pushed from her wheelchair, or see Izzy in Coronation Street taking drugs to alleviate her pain.

Maybe studios need to employ the nudge theory rather than be forced to resort to quotas. The more we see disabled actors in roles of empowerment, the more we can work towards eradicating the medical model and see beyond the condition. Of course, film and television are excellent ways of raising awareness of the type of issues facing disabled people on a daily basis.

So let us see a mum in a wheelchair, trying to find accessible and clean facilities to change her baby, a young learning disabled man trying to find work, or a disabled CEO or MP. And are we ready for a disabled criminal yet? Maybe…

Get involved

Acting and drama is an amazing profession to become involved in. It boosts confidence, teaches new skills and tackles social isolation. It has been proved to be particularly helpful as a therapy tool for children and those with learning disabilities.

If you have ever thought about acting, singing or dance yourself, why not give it a go?
A good place to start looking for a local group is www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk . It has a directory on its website that lists amateur groups for all abilities across the UK. More locally, the Mushroom Theatre Company (www.mushroomtheatre.co.uk) in Rayleigh is a fully inclusive group that offers a range of classes in the performing arts.

Tread the boards and become part of the movement for change.

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