ACTING DISABLED: WHY WE NEED TO SEE DISABILITIES ONSCREEN

by Alice Thomson

(Content warning: discussion of ableism & ableist slurs)

The summer of 2016 saw outrage in response to the film Me Before You and its portrayal of disability. The film, directed by Thea Sharrock and based on the book by Jojo Moyes, is a romance following the lives of a young man (played by Sam Claflin) and woman (Emilia Clarke). Where’s the controversy in that, you ask? Well…

It arises from the depiction of the character played by Claflin – a rich, successful, active and happy man who befalls an accident that leaves him quadriplegic. The story results with him choosing to visit an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland to end his life. Although throughout the film Clarke’s character tries to convince him otherwise, his mind is set. Disabled rights activists found this story offensive because the underlying message of this story is that having a disability is a horrific misfortune and that disabled people are better off dead. This isn’t a case of debating assisted suicide for those at the end of their lives who have painful and debilitating conditions. Claflin’s character isn’t at the end of his life – his circumstances have changed, yes, but that is all.

This story has led me to more closely question how disabled people are depicted in film and television. It has also led me to question how rarely it is shown in these mediums. In the 2011 census over 11 million people in the UK were reported as disabled – so why is disability so underrepresented in film and television? Whenever someone with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is portrayed in television, usually a hospital related drama, the online EDS community gets excited. I must confess that this does not happen often.

Infrequent as it is, this meant that my ears pricked when I happen to tune into Radio 4 and Nikki Fox, the BBC Disability Correspondent, was discussing this very issue. Her one-off discussion was called Acting Disabled, and she interviewed many people from the industry to talk about the issue. Liz Carr, who is known for her role in Silent Witness, spoke of her own experience within the industry. She found that on-set and backstage it was important for people working with her to feel comfortable. She said that by using humour, people around her didn’t have to feel scared about working with a disabled person. It’s through lack of understanding that people can experience discomfort and fear. After all, we fear that which we do not know.

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Liz Carr speaking at the Labour Party conference, Andy Burnham MP to her left.

Julie Fernandez, known for her role in the UK version of The Office, also commented on how important humour was in challenging people’s perceptions. The Office used cringeworthy incidents both for comic and poignant effect. Julie felt that her role in The Office tackled issues of disability head on. She observed that disabled people are portrayed onscreen in only a few ways – as brave, wonderful Everest-climbing amputees, as baddies with eyepatches or mental illnesses, or as fiddle-fit Paralympians. Her desire is to show true representation of disabled people beyond these three examples. 

So, the portrayal of disability in dramas and soaps is changing for the better – but what about in Hollywood, on the silver screen? The screen critic Nick Duncalf highlighted how disability is often seen as something to pity or as a struggle for the individual. He went further by discussing the James Bond franchise and the way it has represented disabled people over the last 50 years. He pointed out how the characters in these films are two-dimensional, and how a person’s evil or badness is always at least partially conveyed through how they look or appear onscreen, thereby associating evil with certain types of appearance. Even in more recent Bond films such Skyfall, the main “baddy” Raoul Silva had an extreme facial mutilation. This associating of evil with physical appearances that are outside of the “norm” is echoed all across Hollywood – amputees, wheelchair users and so forth, for instance, are rarely the good guys. Nick carried on to point out that in Hollywood, abled actors playing disabled characters always seem to score Oscars, from Dustin Hoffman playing someone with autism to Al Pacino playing a blind man. Nick observes that actors are typically revered for their ability to demonstrate the inner life and emotions of a character through the subtle use of their body. Alternatively, when the actor plays the role of someone with a disability, people are impressed by the ability of the actor to mimic said disability.

The representation of disabilities onscreen has been studied and written about for years, resulting in certain terminology coming into use to describe nondisabled actors playing disabled characters. Terms like “disability drag”, “cripface” and “cripping up” are often used in the industry, and disabled actors can find them extremely offensive. However, the issue is complicated. The pool of disabled actors isn’t big. Casting a person with the desired characteristics as well as the specific disability for the role is not always possible when drawing from the disabled acting community. In addition to this big name actors draw bigger numbers at the box office, thereby bringing in more money. 

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Abled actor James McAvoy in the role of Professor Charles Xavier, one of the most famous disabled characters of all time.

Mat Fraser, probably known best for his character in American Horror Story, discussed the role that scriptwriting plays when it comes to employing disabled actors. It can be easy to justify using an abled actor because the script shows a progression from good health to ill health, or involves some type of dream sequence where the character is abled. Mat, however, disagrees and sees this as a narrative excuse. His point is that if directed and scripted correctly, it is possible for a disabled actor to overcome any barriers that might occur. He goes on to say that one of the main reasons disabled people are underrepresented in film and television is down to the fact that these mediums are commissioned mainly by white, middle class, heterosexual able-bodied men. These men want to see stories that they can relate to, resulting in films with abled casts – and that’s how the industry has been since its inception. 

Casting neutrally may be one way to start combating the underrepresentation of disabled people on screen, at least according to Alison Walsh, lead of the BBC’s Diversity and Inclusion team. The idea is to cast disable actors in roles that are not specifically disabled, as there are so many roles in that would be suitable for someone regardless or whether they are disabled or not. Encouraging casting directors to audition disabled actors for such parts would certainly be a step in the right direction. By increasing the use of disabled actors across genres you would therefore be normalising disability. It’s time to stop seeing disability as an issue and start looking at it as just another aspect of life. Liz Carr’s final thought on the topic is that it will take time and a real change to society’s attitude before disabled actors will be commonplace on our screens. She finished off by saying that it is getting better – but dreadfully slowly.

Featured image credit: Alex Bailey/Warner Bros. and MGM

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