Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Disability in Movies, Television and on the Stage

Disability rights activists often complain that the tv/movie industry doesn’t represent people with disabilities accurately. It is said that few characters with disabilities appear in these media. It is further said that when they do appear, they are stereotypical and misrepresentative. And to add insult to injury (pun intended), disabled characters are rarely played by actors with disabilities. We rant against that. Yet, perhaps it isn’t as straightforward as we believe to find the right actor for the job.

A 2005 survey by the Screen Actors Guild showed that people with disabilities were under represented in the movies and television. Approximately 20% of the United States population has a disability. This number is similar to census data from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, etc. The SAG survey states that: “less than 2 percent of TV show characters display a disability and only 0.5 percent have speaking roles.” That is significant under representation.

The depiction of characters with disabilities seems to either put them in either the “supercrip” or super villain categories. The image is all too often extreme rather than average. Think of Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West. His character is a super villain. There’s of course the wheelchair using villain that tries to kill Bond in For Your Eyes Only.As for supercrips, if disabled people aren’t busy being villains, they seem to be presented as heroes, or exceptional because of their disability. Very few are characters with disabilities represented as just your average individual. Notting Hill had a wheelchair using character that was just incidental to the story line, the charactor using, or not, a wheelchair did not progress the plot. The portrayal of this character was good: just another person going about their business.

As Lennard Davis, a disability scholar, points out, most characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors. Lennard writes:

Think of the wheel-chair guy in Glee, quadriplegic Jason Street in Friday Night Lights (and his wheel-chair buddy Herc). Think of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman — all non-disabled actors playing disabled roles.

There’s also Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector or Gregory Hines in Good Luck. Or Vincent D’Onofrio also in Good Luck. Or Patrick Stewart in X-Men. Sean Penn in Sam I Am. Gina McKee in Notting Hill. The list goes on.

Producers argue that they need big names to attract people to the show/movie/tv. And I can see that commercial imperative. Disability rights group argue back that “it isn’t right”, and I agree with that, but that doesn’t mean producers don’t need to make money, and attracting people without having a Big Name is difficult at best. Not very many disabled actors have a big name. Marlee Matlin is the only big name I can think of at the moment, and even she doesn’t really have such a big name in Hollywood.

And this leads me to a story I heard of recently. I heard of a movie in early stages of production, where the screenwriter has a disability, and so does the director. There are several parts disabled characters in the film. And despite the best efforts of the director, they could not find a single disabled actor that was suitable for any of the roles. They are working on a demo at the moment and they had to hire an actor without a disability to play the lead role of a character with a disability. Now these guy get it, trully they do. They wanted to do the right thing. But they couldn’t.

Producers want big names for their shows. But there aren’t big names disabled actors. Viscious circle, I suggest, because actors won’t have a chance to become known until/unless there are more characters with disabilities in film, and unless actors with disabilities are hired for these roles. But the reality is, right now, there are no real viable option for many directors wanting to hire actors with disabilities.

How do we change that?