Tag Archives: disabled actors

Today in Journalism: The Film Critic Who Wouldn’t

Pity Jeannette Catsoulis. This poor New York Times film critic recently faced quite a conundrum when she was sent out to review Me, Too, written and directed by Álvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro. I’ll let her tell you about it:

Fiction films with disability as a central theme (especially those that feature disabled actors) are not only tricky to assemble but also minefields to critique. Praise can sound patronizing and criticism cruel, the disability casting a bulletproof cloak of political correctness around the entire project.

I always love it when people make sure to bring up ‘political correctness’ in this context, because it’s such a nice little codephrase. The art is suffering! It’s because of them! Those politically correct people over there. A poor critic can’t even talk honestly about something without fear of being harried by a horde of angry crips. I know, I’m sniffling too.

Now, criticism in the sense of art criticism is a bit different than the type of critique we tend to focus on here, which is specifically analysing the depiction of disability in art. My discussions about, for example, Covert Affairs focus not on the quality of the show (terrible) or whether I think it’s a successful piece of art (no), or even its place within a larger artistic context, but specifically on how disability is handled. And obviously, what we do  here is also aimed at a specific audience, people interested in talking about disability in art and pop culture, rather than the general community.

I say this because I don’t want to conflate what I do with what Catsoulis does; her job is to look at works of art and criticise them as creative wholes, considering their influences, the genre, similar works, the history, and a myriad of other topics. This is not a sour grapes ‘I could do this better than her’ post, because we do two different things. That said, I don’t have very much sympathy for her. I think that good criticism stands for itself. If she’s being attacked for being ‘patronising’ or ‘cruel,’ she’s doing something wrong. Like, maybe her reviews actually are patronising or cruel.

I’ve read a lot of art criticism in my day, including critiques of pieces featuring disability. Those have indeed included discussions that were clearly patronising along with evaluations that were needlessly cruel. But they’ve also included good, solid criticism that actually engages with the work and tells me something about it, coming from people who don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about the disability and the ability status of the actors or creators. It can be done, I know, because I’ve seen it, and I enjoy reading it, whether the critic is shredding the piece or praising it.

Her attitude suggests that critics shouldn’t engage with works involving disability, and that if they do, they should not be honest. This does a service to absolutely no one. People with disabilities are just as interested in good criticism as everyone else. We make decisions about the art we want to consume on the basis of a broad assortment of characteristics, including things like critical response, and we don’t regard works featuring disability as inherently unassailable and would like to know, for example, if a film is just bad and we shouldn’t bother going to see it. Disability is not a free pass to do whatever you want in a creative work and that’s an attitude we spend a lot of time pushing back against.

I’ve noticed this attitude popping up in a lot of areas of media and pop culture. People are acting like it’s not fun anymore because of ‘political correctness,’ implying that a bunch of humourless people with no appreciation for art and culture are running around destroying creativity as we know it. Apparently, asking creators to stop relying on tired tropes and poor depictions of, say, disability, is ‘ruining art.’ Engaging with common tropes and the history of those tropes in art and asking why they keep appearing is ‘politically correct.’ Now the critics are joining in to complain about how legitimate complaints from people who don’t like hackneyed ‘criticism’ of the way their lived experience is portrayed is ‘ruining things.’

The snide remarks Catsoulis added to the top of her review didn’t really add anything to the discussion, other than serving as a warning that I shouldn’t trust her as a reviewer when she’s discussing works where disability is involved.

Recommended Reading for Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Happy Wednesday, y’all! I can’t believe the (Gregorian) year is almost over. Here are some things I’ve read lately and found interesting; the usual caveats re:comments sections, etc. apply!

Gimps are HOT!: A powerchair user at an ADAPT action holds up a sign saying 'Gimps are hot! Crips are sexy! We want access too!

Photo of a protester at an ADAPT action taken by Flickr user sissyboystud, creative commons license.

C.L. Minou on The Guardian: Comment is free: Trans people are humiliated by healthcare system

Problems getting prescriptions are only the end part of the process. In the US, most doctors won’t prescribe hormones without a patient having undergone a psychological consultation beforehand. At first glance, who would object? Hormones are powerful drugs that cause permanent changes and a screening process should be in place to make sure that you’re competent to make the decision to take them, right?

Joseph Shapiro at NPR News: Olivia Welter, Other Severely Disabled Adults Win Round in Court Battle

Just weeks ago, the Welters thought Olivia’s nurses would walk out the door when she turned 21. But in late October, the family joined a lawsuit filed by the family of another disabled man who had lost services, William Hampe. The state of Illinois then agreed that it would continue the level of services that Olivia had been receiving while the case goes through the courts.

Dahr Jamail at Socialist Worker: Poisoning the Gulf’s residents

“I have pain in my stomach, stabbing pains, in isolated areas,” Rednour added. “The sharp stabbing pain is all over my abdomen where this discoloration is, it’s in my arm pits and around my breasts. I have this dry hacking cough, my sinuses are swelling up, and I have an insatiable thirst.”

Rednour’s recent problems are a continuation of others that have beset her for months, including headaches, respiratory problems, runny nose, nausea and bleeding from the ears.

John Moore at The Denver Post: Oh, the disabled can pack a punch line (note, as you can see from the title, questionable language usage abounds in this piece and it also includes reclamatory uses of slurs like the r-word)

“Like many marginalized and disenfranchised populations, there is reclamation of power that goes with being able to take words that have been used pejoratively and use them to make people laugh,” said Hill. “While I do think the primary purpose of ‘Vox’ is entertainment, it also serves the secondary purpose of advocacy.”

But furthering understanding of the disabled, she said, requires an audience not made up entirely of disabled people.

“Like most movements, if you continue the conversation only among yourselves, you’re not going to get very far,” she said. “Women, for example, can talk about ending sexual violence as much as they want, but until they have as many male comrades in the fight with them, it’s not going to stop.”

Sharon Brennan guest posting at Where’s the Benefit: The Government Is Implicated In Creating Negative Attitudes To Disabled

Clearly there is a negative perception of disabled people in the UK, which can undoubtedly be attributed in part to right-wing media representation of the disabled. The Daily Mail is notorious for this. A recent front page screamed,  “75% of claimants are fit to work“, and carried on: “Tough new benefits test weed out the workshy”.

Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.

One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.

And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!

Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.

Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.

The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!

I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.

Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or  how he acquired it.

These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?

When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?

Recommended Reading for Thursday, 29 July 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

Marathon de Paris 2010:  A wheelchair user closes in on the finish line. The image is very dynamic and filled with motion.

Sandra Graf (SUI) nears the 20km mark during the 2010 Paris Marathon. Photo by Flickr User siobh.ie, Creative Commons License.

Alex Nesbitt at Digital Podcast: USA Network Uses Fake Blind Guy to Celebrate Americans With Disabilties Act (h/t Media dis&dat)

A sighted person is playing a blind person, and there are not any real blind actors on the show that I know of.

What does that say about their real respect for the ADA.

If they wanted to make this about people with disabilities why not extend the principles they claim and find a blind actor to play the part. After all, if the CIA can do it why not Hollywood.

ephemeralhope at If I was walking through a sad art gallery…: You Know You’re Blind When…

I am sixteen years old. Many people believe that I am too young to instruct my elders in how they should be treating people. However, I have lived all my life with a disability that has affected the way people perceive me, I know how it influences the way I feel about myself and choose to live my life. I will not judge you for your point of view towards me and my disability; I will only say that I respect those who see me before they see my disability more than the people that only see me as the blind girl. I do not deny my blindness, nor do I deny my independence and determination to prove that there is more to a person than their disability.

Remember this: if you ever became disabled you would still want to be treated as the person you are today, so do I.

Rhianon Elan Gutierrez at PGA Diversity: We Are the Audience Too: Responsibility as Creators

I am a filmmaker and I have a hearing loss. I understand both sides of the experience: as a creator and as an audience member.

I know how difficult it is to raise money to have the equipment you need, the actors you want, the location that’s beautiful, and the crew you know you need to feed and pay. I’m passionate about the process but what makes it challenging (and ultimately more rewarding) is the responsibilities that I have not only to my goals, my craft, and to my team, but to my audience. During the process of making my films and even afterwards, I make a commitment to be respectful of the access and communication needs and abilities of my cast and crew. I learn new things every day from them and about them. When it comes to my audience, I think about the one person of two hundred. It’s easy to forget this person, but I’ve been this person so I know that I must remind myself of those moments. I love the experience of making films and I especially love to see the impact that my films have on others and the difference that it makes when they can follow the story. I know I am not alone in sharing this sentiment.

Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed: For One, for All

When advocates for students with disabilities asked Stephen Rehberg, an associate academic professional at Georgia Tech’s Center of Enhanced Teaching and Learning, to help create workshops to teach science and technology faculty members how better to accommodate disabled students, Rehberg’s answer was simple: “No.”

“Trying to teach faculty about accessibility is a dead end,” Rehberg said last week, during a session as Blackboard’s annual user conference here. “They’re not going to come to the workshops, and [if] they get there, they’re going to glaze over. I said, ‘I’m not going to waste my time or the grant money.’ ”

kissestokashmir at Your fucking culture alienates me: Something I have been thinking about a lot

And what a weird thing to care about. Who would mourn the loss of their birth defect? (Syndactyly is the official name of my condition.) I would most likely feel different about this if it was located on a more visible part of my body, such as the hands, or actually impeded my functioning. But it didn’t. It was just something unique about me, something that set me apart from everyone else I knew and I enjoyed having something that was unique to me and didn’t know that I enjoyed it until it was gone. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s no point in robbing people of what makes them different or unique and they may very well end up resenting you for the imposition into their lives. What you may consider a defect or an oddity, they may consider a vital characteristic of their personality. And you do not have the right to take it from them or to characterize what it means for them.

Astrid von Woerkom at Astrid’s Journal: Autistic Student Denied Education, Loses Court Battle

This is sad. What is sadder, is that quite a number of students with disabilities are left without education for reasons similar to A.’s. School distritcts excuse lack of education by the argument that they don’t have the resources to educate “difficult” students. Even in countries like the Netherlands, where school attendance is compulsory – I don’t know about the UK -, students are left behind to sit at home.

Recommended Reading for Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

A wheelchair in a rocky, grassy landscape on a mountain. He is leaning forward to unzip a tent and camping equipment is stacked next to the tent's entry.

‘4WheelBob Coomber climbs Mt. White in a wheelchair’ by Flickr user Rick McCharles, Creative Commons License.

Stitch Kingdom: Disneyland Resort Begins Broad Sign Language Interpretation Program Across Parks

Disneyland Resort this week began offering regularly-scheduled sign language interpretation at numerous shows and attractions at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks. As part of the Resort’s ongoing commitment to guests with disabilities, individuals have access to a schedule of offerings where interpretation is provided without having to make prior arrangements.

“The Disneyland Resort is dedicated to making the Disney tradition of rich storytelling available to all of our guests,” said Betty Appleton, who oversees the Resort’s guests with disabilities program. “Our new sign language service enables guests with hearing disabilities [ed note-indeed] to engage with our shows and attractions in a whole new way.”

Jeff Baenen at the San Francisco Chronicle: Theatre mixes disabled, nondisabled actors (warning, the framing of this article is along some familiar ‘overcoming disability’ and ‘they are just like normal people!’ lines)

Dozens of theater companies use disabled actors, including troupes in Cincinnati, Washington and New York. But there still are too few roles for them, said Ike Schambelan, founder and artistic director of New York’s off-Broadway Theater Breaking Through Barriers.

Casting directors are “perfectly willing to put an able-bodied person in a disabled role when I cannot believe they could not find a person for the role who uses a wheelchair,” he said.

isabelthespy at very filled with dreams: don’t you think mental health issues should be taught as part of high school health class?

and while i do think you can’t understand it if you haven’t been there, i feel like it might not be a total waste of time to introduce people, early, to that fact. to be like: “depression is a thing. a real thing, even. if you don’t have it and never have, you don’t know what the fuck it’s like. so if you ever feel like giving a depressed person some helpful advice based on that time you were sad, or if you feel like maybe it would be helpful for everyone involved if you gave the depressed person a good talking-to about how they should just try harder to get their shit together already, please remember that time you were sixteen and your health teacher told you, preemptively, to SHUT THE FUCK UP.” and thus we spare thousands of future depressed people the agony of not so much having their friends not understand them as having their friends THINK they understand them when, actually, they don’t and can’t.

Afua Hirsch and Alice Lagnado at The Guardian: Study shows more disabled students are dropping out of university

Although when she began her anthropology degree course at Durham University Watson was assessed and given the help of a note-taker and a laptop, she says tutors and lecturers humiliated her and failed to take her needs into account. When she raised the issue, she was offered counselling to help her adjust to university life.

“[One tutor] tapped on the loop [of her hearing aid system] and shouted down it “Rosie can you hear me, Rosie” and I was made to feel humiliated, especially when other students laughed at this,” Watson says. “I asked the tutor if she realised just how upsetting that had been for me; her reaction was to say that she always shouted ‘because her grandmother is old’.

BBC News: Disability support evidence to help inquiry

The EHRC is using its legal powers to hold the inquiry into the ways local authorities, the police, social services, schools, public transport operators and other bodies tackle – or don’t tackle – disability harassment.

Research carried out by the EHRC last year revealed that disabled people are four times more likely than non-disabled people to be victims of crime.

Representations: Dr. Gabriel Fife on Private Practice

Here in the United States, there’s a depiction of disability that airs on network television every Thursday night, on the Shonda Rimes show Private Practice. Rimes is probably better known for Grey’s Anatomy, a show which has won a lot of accolades1, not least for the ethnic diversity of its cast, but Private Practice is worth the occasional peek, especially if you enjoy infuriating plot lines.

In season three, Private Practice introduced Dr. Gabriel Fife (Michael Patrick Thornton). Dr. Fife is a genetics specialist who works for the rival medical practice in the series, and he’s also a wheelchair user.

Several things are interesting about Dr. Fife. The first is that he’s played by an actor who is also a wheelchair user. And it shows. Thornton is comfortable with his chair and uses it like an extension of himself, illustrating that, yes, it does take practice and experience to learn to use a chair effectively. Since I’m always pleased to see disabled actors in disabled roles, I’m rather chuffed about this particular detail.

But there’s more to like about him. For one thing, he is specifically introduced as a love interest in the series. Perish the thought. Not just a wheelchair user, but a sexy wheelchair user! Yet, he’s not a character who is consumed by his disability or exoticized by it. Dr. Fife is arrogant, he’s pushy, he’s a fully realised and complex character. He just is.

Other characters sometimes struggle with how to relate to him, and he’s well aware of that, and I like that too. It’s not that Private Practice is erasing his disability or making it into a Big Production or patting themselves on the back for featuring him. On the contrary, they’re doing a really good job of showing that for his character, it’s just part of him, and for other characters, it’s something which makes them feel awkward and confused. Which I think is very true to life; a lot of people don’t know what to do around wheelchair users and it never occurs them to actually try interacting with the person in the chair.

This is an example of the kind of depiction of disability in pop culture I like. He’s a character who happens to be disabled. Sometimes he does things which really piss me off and I hurl popcorn at the screen, but these are things his character does; I’m not getting infuriated because of how he’s characterised, but because of who he is. Sometimes he makes great points, including points about disability and objectification, and I chortle with delight. His interactions with other characters within the context of the show speak to actual lived experiences. I don’t feel like he’s the embodiment of a trope; he’s just a person, like all the other people.

There are a lot of problems with Private Practice, and I am thinking particularly about how the show deals with mental health and the plotlines surrounding children and motherhood here, but this is one thing which I think the show has going for it.

I recently heard an interview with Thornton where he was talking about disabled actors, and he said some things that, well, we’ve been saying here, but it’s nice to hear them airing on National Public Radio [transcript at link]:

“Do they consider us equally for parts?” Thornton says, “Obviously no, because disabled actors are so underrepresented on stage and screen.”

…His ideal acting job would be one in which “nobody ever mentions the chair.” It would be just a feature, in other words, like having red hair or being pregnant — part of who the character is, but not the sum total.

In the season finale, which just aired in the US, there was some interesting stuff going on with disability which I don’t want to talk about in detail in case there are readers who haven’t seen it yet (feel free to discuss the finale in comments, though), and it was…interesting to see how that played out. Two rolls forward, one roll backwards, it seems.

  1. Our Lauredhel recently wrote about some problematic stuff that occurred on last week’s episode, pointing out that all is not sunny in Grey’s land.

Recommended Reading for Friday, 14 May 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

A kiteboarder on the water with what appears to be an above the knee amputation of the left leg.

Photo by Flickr user Deadly Tedly, Creative Commons License.

Astrid at Astrid’s Journal: Autism and Mental Illness

But why should it matter at all? Of course, sometimes, the misconception that autism is a mental illness leads to inappropriate treatment, such as unwarranted drugging, and it is rather necessary that the two be distinguished then. But when the only aim is acceptance for autistics, it should not make a difference. People with mental illness deserve and strive for as much acceptance, after all.

NPR: The Impact of War

This is the landing page for an ongoing series by NPR with both transcripts and audio available. I’d highly recommend the whole series, but ‘Disabled Veterans Face A Faceless Bureaucracy‘ may be particularly relevant to your interests; here’s a pullquote:

The number of outstanding claims at the VA for service-related disabilities — amputations, injured limbs, PTSD, brain trauma — hovers around 500,000. Nearly 40 percent of those have been waiting on a decision for more than four months.

And to make matters worse, another 100,000 claims are waiting for a decision at the Board of Veterans Appeals. The department has responded by hiring thousands of new claims adjudicators, a kind of brute force approach.

Snarky’s Machine: 20th Century Boy

What I found tragic was not their respective disabilities, which I’m sure presented challenges to them, but the way in which their bodies were suddenly appropriate for public discourse and each was suddenly defined by what their bodies could no longer do in a way I found diminished their continuing talents and contributions in their area of excellence. Their lives were not really theirs anymore and their bodies were expected to be everyone else’s educational opportunity.

Steve Schultze and Meg Kissinger at the Journal Sentinel: Supervisors call for firing of county mental health chief [Content warning: Rape, sexual assault, institutionalisation. Editorial comment: What. The. Fuck?!]

Three Milwaukee County supervisors turned up the heat Monday on the county’s top mental health official, calling for the firing of John Chianelli over mishandling of patient assaults.

Their remarks follow a report Sunday in the Journal Sentinel in which Chianelli defended housing female patients with dangerous male patients to quell male-on-male violence, according to written account by Supervisor Lynne De Bruin. Chianelli called it a trade-off that resulted in more sexual assaults of female patients, according to De Bruin and two other supervisors.

Hazel Dooney at Self Vs. Self: After the Crash, Part One [Content Warning, graphic description of a car crash, being trapped in wreckage]

What drove me to a break down last year weren’t the rigours of making art (although, I concede, the toxic enamel I used was enormously detrimental to my physical health). Rather, it was always trying to do what others – family, friends, doctors, even collectors – kept telling me was ‘right’.

Cynthia Hubert at the Sacramento Bee: Groups sue Sacramento County to halt mental health cuts

The lawsuit seeking class-action status, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, contends the cuts violate various state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and would be devastating to patients.

If the services are eliminated as planned on June 30, thousands of severely, chronically mentally ill people “will inevitably be exposed to increased harm of injury and death,” the lawsuit claims.

NPR1: Prudent Mabhena: Out Of Struggle, A Soaring Voice

“These children get locked away,” Williams says. “They’re hidden from the rest of society because the families are ashamed of them.”

Mabhena was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that deforms the joints; it has cost her both of her legs, and makes it difficult for her to use her arms. When she was born, her father’s mother advised her mother not to nurse her. After her parents abandoned her, she was cared for by her maternal grandmother, a rural farmer who kept Mabhena at her side as she worked.

  1. Ok I am sorry about two NPR links in one recommended reading but I’ve been saving these up all week. No, I do not own a Volvo. I swear. I don’t even have a tote bag!

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.