Where Are All the People With Disabilities?

Crossposted at this ain’t livin’.

I would like you to imagine that you are a film producer, or perhaps a television producer. You are making something, and you have decided that since an estimated 20% of the population consists of people with disabilities, that maybe there should be some people with disabilities in your finished piece. So, you decide to include them. And you do your due diligence; you consult disability activists, you educate yourself about how they should be portrayed, you make sure that their characters are fully integrated into the story, that they aren’t tokens.

This already makes you a standout in the world of film and television production, because, as a general rule, the portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television is atrocious. Some independent films might be better, but mainstream media, for the most part, tokenizes people with disabilities when it deigns to include them, and often manages to be extremely offensive about it.

Now, I would like you to imagine that you are a casting director preparing casting calls for this wonderful new work in which people with disabilities will be portrayed. You’re doing writeups of the characters for release to send out to agencies, or maybe you’re even preparing an open casting call.

Are you going to actively request that actors with disabilities try out for the roles? Or is that not important to you?

Judging from the current portrayal of disability on television, I’m going to bet that our fictional casting director is not going to actively pursue actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. Instead, they’re going to go for the crip face. I was going to draw an analogy here, and ask: If you were a casting director casting a Black character, would you solicit Black actors? Or would that not be important to you? Except that I see blackface continues to be alive and well, so, apparently, the answer again is no, it’s not important that Asian actors play Asian characters, that Black actors play Black characters, that male actors play male characters, that disabled actors play characters with disabilities.

This is annoying.

It’s annoying, for one thing, because I would like to see more people with disabilities on my screen, and because I would like to see them specifically played by actors with disabilities. But no, it’s too hard to find disabled actors. Or, they’re too hard to work with. When an actual actor with a disability is allowed onto a television set playing a disabled character, it’s played like someone’s being done a huge favour, and aren’t we inclusive and progressive, casting a disabled actor to play this part!

I can think of only a handful of disabled characters I like. One is Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. Bonnie is Deaf, as is Shoshannah. One of the things that’s interesting about her character is that when Shoshannah tried out for the role, Bonnie was not written as Deaf. Apparently her reading was liked so much that they changed the character. And they did a pretty good job; Bonnie is a fully realized character, her Deafness is not a token, and in fact it proves to be an asset at times.

Bonnie shows how it’s possible to integrate a disabled character into a piece without making a big production out of it, without making it feel forced and fake, without being disrespectful. Her Deafness isn’t framed as a terrible tragedy or a magical special gift from God, it’s just a fact. It’s great to see other characters signing with her, instead of forcing her to read lips all the time, although it’s kind of unfortunate that the DP apparently thought it would be a good idea to not show the hands half the time during signing scenes. It’s great to see Bonnie saying “I’m Deaf, not stupid,” reminding people that she can read lips and that, therefore, it’s not a good idea to talk trash about her because you think she can’t understand you. (Aside from the fact in general that you shouldn’t be talking trash about people even when you know they aren’t around to understand.)

Deafness is part of what makes Bonnie Bonnie, and considering that the character wasn’t supposed to be Deaf at the start, I think that’s a pretty great accomplishment.

But…one disabled character does not a revolution make. Why is it so difficult to add characters with disabilities into the world of film and television, and once they’re there, why is it still acceptable to use temporarily able bodied actors in crip face to play them, rather than, you know, seeking out disabled actors?

There are a lot of superbly talented actors with disabilities out there who do great work when they are allowed to do it. Some of them actually work more in roles for able-bodied characters, because that’s all that’s out there. Some of them might actually enjoy being able to portray disabled characters, were they given a chance.

I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.

And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.

35 Comments

  1. Great article! I enjoyed reading it; you make some very important points about our absence as both actors and characters in general. While reading your article, I tried to think of an actor with a disability whom I knew of; sadly, I could not think of any.

    It indicates a (very obvious) problem with the media industry’s mentality if I, an active consumer of media who am disabled, cannot be able to identify an actor working in the industry who is also disabled.

    I very much agree with Meloukhia as far as movie/TV characters with disabilities go. Of the few characters with disabilities that exist, there are even fewer that I like.

  2. Robert David Hall, who plays the ME on CSI, is a double amputee. Apparently the character on the show is also supposed to be played as a double amputee, but it’s never mentioned, which sort of defeats the point! He’s probably the most prominent disabled actor playing a disabled character that I can think of.

    I also found this really depressing quote from a 2003 SAG study: “According to the study, only one in 50 characters on television in 2003 displayed a disability, and just one-half of 1 percent of those uttered a word onscreen.”

    ETA: source for that quote.

  3. Robert David Hall is love. I’ve seen him with a crutch on CSI and The West Wing and I can’t remember what else; it’s nice to find PWD just *there* on TV. He does some disability advocacy work, too. Read this interview!

    Hi, disabled, non-white actor here. I’ve played one or two non-white people and never played a disabled person. (Context: I often pass as white and abled. Don’t worry, the non-white character I recall shared my background.) I wish they’d write us the roles, and good ones.

    Edited, a month later, to add: actually I did play a blind woman once!

  4. I think Geri Jewell’s character in Deadwood was a really good fit in the script – her character was treated just the same as other able characters (meaning not extras super nice or as an example of

    HBO seems to be pretty decent at producing not so PC but “natural” shows in which disabled actors and their characters are not tokenized. Carnival – was also an excellent/challenging production which included disabled characters. Here is an article on Bree Walker:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/entertainment/2001995758_breewalker04.html

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Warwick Davis (The Harry Potter movies, the Leprechaun movies, Wilow</em) has an agency that represents "Short Actors," from 3ft 1in to 5ft tall. The agency is called Willow Management. He’s also starring in film called ShortFellas, about a group of dwarfs on a diamond heist. (It’s not out yet, since Davis is still working on Harry Potter.)

    Trisomy Films (Greeks Productions) is an indie film production company that makes lots of horror/b-movies. One of the actors is Rene Moreno, who has Down Syndrome; he and writer/director Duane Graves have been friends since childhood. They made a documentary called Up Syndrome. (I’ve seen some of Up Syndrome, but none of the others, sadly. (Revenge of the Cabbage Patch Killer has got to be the best title ever).

    Actor Michael Berryman has Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia. He’s most famous for playing lead cannibal mutant Pluto in the original The Hills Have Eyes, and tends to play creepy people, mutants and bikers in scary movies. He was also in Star Trek: TNG. As much as it pains me to say this–lover of scary movies that I am–I’d love to see Michael in a Real Movie where he’s not creeping out the audience. (Romance! Romance! Romance! *fingers crossed*)

    And speaking of romance, Peter Dinklage is teh hawt.

    But, yeah, *totally* agreed with this post. I’ve been trying to think of non-white actors with disabilities, and…besides Chally (:)) and Rene Moreno, the only person I can think of is Bernie Mac. This could be my own white privilege talking.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  6. I’m in Australia and one our major soap operas Home & Away recently has/had? (I don’t watch tv much) a recurring character with Autism. No idea on if the actor had it or not, but they did introduce a “girl”friend for him with Downs Syndrome, where the actress did have Downs.

    For a while, I actually watched the show as there was someone like me on it! (Or as I thought of it, there was finally a character who was (my kind of) normal and made sense.)

    Actually, thats something to consider. When the character has a visible disability which can’t be “pretended” easily (such as Downs Syndrome), don’t they have to use an actor with the disability?
    But with invisible disabilities or ones which can be acted (a wheelchair user for example), they can get away with using non-disabled actors.

  7. PETER DINKLAGE IS QUITE HOT. … I’m okay now. Who else… I’m a great fan of Marlee Matlin.

    That’s a such good point, Amy.

    (Will stop dominating your thread now, mel.)

  8. You’re not dominating it at all! You’re adding to the conversation!

    Here in the US, the ABC Family show “Secret Life of the American Teenager” (which I don’t watch because, well, it’s dreadful) has an actor with Down’s (Luke Zimmerman) playing a character with Down’s (Tom Bowman). But he’s also white. It’s telling that the three examples I can think of off the top of my head are all white.

  9. I thought that “Life Goes On” was done very well. But that was years ago. (I remember that it was on around the time that my friend’s youngest sister, who has Down Syndrome, was a baby and toddler, and she just graduated high school.) A few weeks ago, I tried to watch “Riding the Bus with my Sister.” Rosie O’Donnell’s portrayal of a developmentally disabled woman was just too painful to watch for more than about five minutes.

  10. I was going to mention Secret Life (dreadful in some ways, yes, but good in others, and especially in the cheesy-bad-good way that I find myself unable to stop watching!). I enjoy the character of Tom Bowman and he seems to be portrayed fairly well-roundedly, but I am not exactly an expert on Down’s syndrome and the best ways to portray it, so take that with a ginormous grain of salt.

    It should be noted, however, that he has a girlfriend who has a developmental disability (not sure if it is Down’s or not) and she is black. She is played by Michelle Marks, who does have a developmental disability herself. She’s been in several episodes and seems to be sticking around. The pair are shown as being in a caring relationship, having both good and bad moods and traits, and desiring to be sexually active with one another (obviously in line with the theme of the show, but I like when a show can portray people with disabilities as having normal functioning sex lives as well!).

    But yea, definitely difficult to think of other examples that I haven’t already seen listed here. Loved Shoshannah Stern in Jericho and also in Weeds.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Glee and Beer =-.

  11. I haven’t seen more than a few eps of Secret Life, so I’m really excited to learn that not only do we have a person of colour portraying a disability, but we have two people with disabilities in a romantic relationship! Which is even more unusual than people with disabilities on television in the first place.

    I haven’t seen Weeds and don’t know much about it, mainly because living where I do, I don’t really need to see fictionalization of marijuana cultivation and dealing; I can just walk out my front door and see plenty. I like my television escapist as a general rule, hence…not much appeal in Weeds. But, since I really like Shoshannah Stern, I might have to check it out now that I know she’s in it.

  12. According to the article linked in the post, Michelle Marks has cerebral palsy.

  13. “According to the study, only one in 50 characters on television in 2003 displayed a disability, and just one-half of 1 percent of those uttered a word onscreen.”

    I really hope they were including sign language when they wrote that! “Utter” seems to have turned, in my dialect of English at least, into a fairly specific word for voice-talking.

    This thread makes me realise further just how rare Marlee Matlin’s career has been, with substantial parts in a large number of fairly prominent shows. She was marvellous in The West Wing.
    .-= lauredhel´s last blog ..Utah OB practice declares its misogyny up front =-.

  14. Something makes me doubt that they included sign in that, unfortunately. It’s a bit unclear from the terms of the study.

  15. It seems like shows for kids have characters with disabilities a lot more often than shows for adults do. Pretty much every example that I can think of, aside from Sesame Street and Postcards From Buster, is a cartoon, though, which probably brings in different issues about whether the actor has a disability. Maya and Miguel did a pretty good episode with a deaf character, but I think he was only there for one episode. That show has at least one other character with a disability as a recurring character, though — one of the main characters’ friends has one arm. (In the episode with the deaf boy, there was actually a pretty neat scene where the kids were learning some ASL, and they happily and immediately figured out how to adapt it so that he could sign with one hand.)

  16. This is a little off-topic, since both actors are able-bodied in this film (and I know that was the opposite point of this post) but has anyone seen “Oasis”? It’s a South Korean film, somewhat controversial, but (in my mind) beautifully done. It is about a young man with mild mental disabilities who falls in love with a woman with cerebral palsy.

    Being a currently able-bodied person, I have limited perspective on whether this film was respectful or exploitative, and I can see both sides.

    Has anyone seen it? Thoughts?

  17. Sorry, to clarify: the actors portray people with disabilities, but in real life, are able-bodied.

  18. I understand that a similar thing happened with the Deaf character on The L Word.

    My friend, who studies film, is writing a dissertation on disability and cult film and TV. The under-representation of disability generally, and with disabled* actors in general, is scandalous. There are some academics and researchers addressing it, though. Now we need to see the results of that research on the TV and film industry.

    *The term we prefer in the UK.
    .-= Naomi (lilwatchergirl)´s last blog ..What I’ve Been Reading =-.

  19. You don’t have to worry about pointing out UK usage, Naomi, I think we’ve got a bit of a language amnesty going on as it stands in order to respect different people’s backgrounds/contexts and usages.

    I am just so enjoying this thread, keep the comments coming, everyone.

  20. It seems like the differences between “visible” and “invisible” disabilities plays a big role when it comes to whetheran actor with a disability is cast. Only some clearly visible disabilties, like people using a wheelchair, are considered “fakeable” because “normal” people can sit in wheelchairs. “Visible” disabltiy then, in the sense that the actor has to be disabled in order to portait the character, seems to be limited to specifc disabitlities like Down Syndrom, deafness, short people, people whose bodies grow differently from the “norm”.(I rember an actor with osteogenesis imperfecta on a daily soap several years back). It seems like, when it would be obvious to the audience that the actor does not hav the disability the character has, actors with disabilities are cast. But as soon as the disability is something you can not “tell” from looking at a person’s face or hearing them speak, the norm seems to be casting non-disabled actors.

    I am sure people in the industry can comeup with all kinds of excuses for this (wheelchairs are difficult to accomodate, actors who are not neuro-typical may not be able to work with the tight schedule etc…)

    It is sad that people whose job it is to present us with realistic portayals of the world don’t seem to be able to understand that, no matter how much studying an non-disabled actor does on the topic of the disability ze is supposed to portrait, ze will never know as much as a person who actually has that disablity. And there seem to be far to few who understand that the actor who actually knows what living with a specific disability is like, will therefore be much more qualified to play the character in a manner that will not leadto tokenism, misconceptions or gross misrepresentation.

  21. As a film/TV industry student UK-side, I actually just got an email last week about the BBC’s new initiative to find and cast actors with disabilities/disabled actors, as well as create a directory for UK industry use. Part of said initiative is, as noted in that press release, the presence and casting of David Proud on EastEnders. How his performance is, I can’t say…I avoid soaps like the plague. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the project yet–I can see it as both necessary and ghettoizing.

    A few brief notes:
    – Not to derail, but I have considerable concern about the non-visible disability factor. Has there ever been a TV character with a sympathetic portrayal of fibromyalgia? How many times has a character with mental illness been played by someone with no personal experience therein?
    – As a long time CSI fan, I’m fairly sure that Doc Robbins’ disability has come up, mostly in bits and pieces (I seem to remember one bit where he mentions running on a treadmill). It’s just not the focus of the character, which I think is pretty cool.
    – Add my voice to the Marlee Matlin and Peter Dinklage lovefests. They are brilliant.

  22. There are several really good articles and books on this topic. I always recommend Paul Longmore’s book Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays About Disability. There’s also Zames’ From Charity to Confrontation and a book that’s entirely about disability in the cinema. (The title has completely escaped me. It’s somewhere on my desk, but it could take me a week to find it at this point.)

    One of the reasons I think they like to hire non-disabled actors is so they can have the Miracle Cure Episode, or otherwise show the actor being “Normal”. Certain in Joan of Arcadia, there’s a later episode that shows Kevin (a character who’s now a full-time wheelchair user after a car accident) imagining himself playing basketball as an able-bodied person. The upcoming episode of Stargate: Universe does a similar thing, when characters “switch bodies” so the paraplegic scientist can walk. (There are some details on that episode here.)

    There seems to be only a few plots people with disabilities, specifically characters who use wheelchairs, are allowed to have, and they require an able-bodied actor. It drives me up the wall, because there are so many stories we have to tell that have nothing to do with miracle cures.

  23. “Not to derail, but I have considerable concern about the non-visible disability factor. Has there ever been a TV character with a sympathetic portrayal of fibromyalgia? How many times has a character with mental illness been played by someone with no personal experience therein?”

    Not a derail at all! A very valid and important point. Most TV shows seem to stick with visible disabilities when it comes to the depiction of disability. I can think of relatively few examples of people with invisible disabilities or mental illness, let alone sympathetic portrayals thereof (River Tam in Firefly comes to mind as a character with mental illness, but I am not at all a fan of the way she is framed). And I would be curious to know if a character with mental illness has ever been played with an actor who has experienced mental illness.

    Also, may I second my hate for the “miracle cure” plot device?
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..Where Are All the People With Disabilities? =-.

  24. Thirding the hate for the “miracle cure” plot device.

    There’s a George Romero horror flick from the 80s called “Monkey Shines.” It took all the crap of the “miracle cure” trope–including “see? you stop being a bitter cripple, you can Walk Again”–and added a heaping helping of sexism on top of it. And, since it’s a horror movie, there’s the lovely addition of “Your being a bitter cripple makes people die!”
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  25. Oh, and! The actor who played the disabled main character in Monkey Shines (Jason Beghe) is now a Scientologist. I am not surprised.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  26. Oh dear, yes, River. I love the character, hate the framing.

    Stephen Fry might be a good candidate–he’s quite outspoken about having bipolar disorder, but I’m not sure he’s specifically portrayed someone with mental illness after his diagnosis. (Speaking of Fry and Laurie, while Hugh Laurie is physically able, I don’t know if I would indicate him as a TAB, as he himself has clinical depression and receives regular treatment for it. But the issues that raises with House and portrayals of disability are really complicated aaaaand probably something for that other post.)

    The lists of entertainers and media people (actors, musicians, writers, etc.) who are open about their own experiences with mental illness are fairly immense, but the more I look at them, the more I have a hard time pinning down portrayals on film/TV of illnesses with the people who do state these experiences. Must do more research.
    .-= Bene´s last blog ..the birthday of the world…or the writer, as it were. =-.

  27. Can I just say do not watch Bollywood movies if you’re looking for um, reality when it comes to disabilities/illnesses.

    The most recent, big budget (Aamir Khan and Kajol) movie I can think of is Fanaa. Zooni (Kajol) is blind. But lo and behold, her blindness can be cured! (Just before the intermission and twist.)

    However, the first half shows a very competent blind woman – she has sex, she explores Dehli, she falls in love with full sighted person. (The issue of her future relationship has a lot to do with marriage in India – so, like in many movies, her first love is her true love.) She is also an accomplished dancer, part of a troupe come to the capital for an exhibition. She is not the “poor blind girl.”

    Of course, in older movies and in a southern movie, you can still transplant entire eyes to fix blindness!
    .-= Kaitlyn´s last blog ..The Franken Senate Defense Appropriations Amendment =-.

  28. This season on Heroes there’s a deaf character, Emma, played by the deaf actress Deanne Bray. She’s figured prominently in the first part of this season and is manifesting a superpower where she experiences sound as color, which is cool, but not that great of a superpower, if you ask me. I’m not sure where they’re going with it since her power seems to be developing into some ability to focus sound to powerful effect (e.g. cracking her apartment wall with the sound/color of cello music), but I would love see her develop into a powerful superhero!

    I’m not sure yet if it feels like the same old shit, like, Look! She’s not really disabled! since they chose to make her superpower about her disability, or if it subverts the mainstream narrative about disabled people. If they’d given her a superpower that had nothing to do with her ability to hear it wouldn’t be such a question, but it could still go horribly wrong. I’m eager to see how her character develops.

  29. meloukhia – I’m not a regular Weeds watcher and the episodes I did see were several years ago, so I can’t attest to how well they depict Shoshana’s character on the show. I’d be curious to read what other people have to say about it, though.

    Ruchama – I didn’t even check that link, thanks for pointing it out! The one I looked up and found simply said she went to an acting school for people with developmental disabilities so I went with that.

    Anna – count me in as one annoyed by the Miracle Cure episodes. I’m actually a huge daytime soap fan, and I am constantly frustrated by the plot device of someone becoming disabled by an accident or attack of some sort, being told it’s permanent, them being angry and/or depressed, and then seeking out a Miracle Cure and within weeks or months, becoming completely healed. This happens with blindness, inability to walk, a variety of mental illnesses, and so much more.

    There are two examples I can think of that didn’t do this. There was a character on The Young and the Restless who was blind and remained blind throughout her life. However, I believe (I wasn’t watching back then) that she entered the show as a blind character, so it wasn’t something that “happened to her” along the way for her to “fight”.

    Maurice Benard, the actor who plays Sonny Corinthos on General Hospital, has bipolar disorder and worked with the show writers to make his character also have the disorder. They drew the story out slowly over time of him figuring out and getting help for the disorder, and now he takes his meds and is mostly okay, but they still bring it up from time to time so the issue hasn’t been “disappeared” which I think is good. He’s also really public about his illness and works on advocacy for mental illness (the actor, not the character).
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Glee and Beer =-.

  30. This is such an interesting post, thank you.

    Speaking as someone with both M.E./CFS and an anxiety disorder: the portrayal of mental illness in television and film frustrates me, but the absence of any characters with M.E. in, well, anything that I can think of frustrates me far more. Though this is one instance where I at least would not have a problem with an able person playing the character, since beyond a certain level of severity I’m not sure how someone with M.E. would be able to manage the energy demanded of a professional actor. It would be lovely to see someone who had recovered from the illness playing such a person, though.

    I also wish to share in the Marlee Matlin love. And also display my adoration for David Bower, who played Hugh Grant’s brother in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. (And is a sign-dancer and choreographer as well as an actor.)

  31. Peter Dinklage is, indeed, quite hot.

    I have heard lots of stories about or from actors with dwarfism that finding actual ACTING roles is very difficult and such opportunities are, sadly, few and far between. There may be lots of parts in costumes or suits or to simply be humiliated on national TV by some average height comedian ([redacted for language which appears to violate our comments policy]) but real roles are hard to find, and Hollywood being what it is, doesn’t really want to deal with the fact that a lot of roles could well be played by such an actor without it being made an issue of. Almost anybody on any show could conceivably be played by somebody of short stature without having to rewrite much of anything, and I expect the same goes for most disabilities. In the entertainment world, though, it seems that we are either there to be “Inspirational” or the butt of jokes. Mean jokes at that. There are exceptions, but not very many.

    This is an awesome site! I’m so glad I found it.

  32. The fail in a lot of movie/TV portrayals of disability is unbelievable – most recently on CSI: NY, one of the main characters was shot and in a wheelchair.

    I didn’t expect much to begin with, but the way they showed it in the course of only a few episodes (it’s a TRAGEDY! but he tries to be STOIC HERO! and oooh, lookie, his TOES MOVED! he gets over being frustrated, thanks to able-bodied doctor-friend being all “many people I’ve seen would be GRATEFUL to be in your place!” – and now WALKS AGAIN!) was atrocious. Not only was it yet another Miracle Cure storyline, it was treated lightning-quick, completely superficially – so much so, it actually made me wonder if the actor just broke his foot or something and needed a wheelchair/crutches and that’s how they dealt with it. 🙁

    Sorry for the capslocking and run-on sentence, but this has been really bothering me and I needed to vent.

  33. While thinking about this post, I remembered the movie Forrest Gump. I think that movie fails in just about every way mentioned so far. I first thought about it when I remembered the controversy over the portrayal of Lt. Dan — about halfway through the movie, he’s injured in the Vietnam War and both his legs are amputated below the knee, and they did this in the film by using what was then cutting-edge technology to digitally remove his lower legs from scenes after that — but then I remembered the scene toward the beginning when young Forrest, who had to wear braces on his legs, is running away from the bullies and the braces suddenly fall off and he’s the fastest runner ever. Or, actually, the entire premise of the movie, a guy with a developmental disability kind of bumbling through life and accidentally changing the world.

  34. […] there has been some recent discussion about how disabilities are, or rather aren’t, represented on TV shows.  Russell’s exit […]

  35. Also – this is an interesting read about RJ Mitte who plays Walter White Jr. on “Breaking Bad.”

    http://this.org/blog/2009/03/03/thisability-18-breaking-bad-and-breaking-barriers/