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Disability and Hollywood, a sordid affair

Matlin Marlee Kevin Winter Getty Images
Marlee Matlin. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And the winner is … definitely not an actor with a visible disability. I say visible disability because I have no way of knowing if any of the nominees in the acting categories have an invisible disability. The stigma against ID is so prevalent that even the most famous performers who have them tend to hide their reality. Disabilities win awards, and not just any awards—they win Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Emmys, and Oscars. In the past 25 years, the lion’s share of the best actor Oscar winners played disabled roles, and every single one of those actors was not disabled. The list is long and distinguished: Dustin Hoffman snagged an Oscar for Rainman, Claire Danes took home a Golden Globe as Temple Grandin, and who could forget Tom Hanks sweeping all the awards shows as the lovable Forrest Gump? Actors who do not take home the gold for cripping up are, at the very least, nominated, like Tom Cruise for Born on the Fourth of July or Leonardo DiCaprio for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I have always believed that what was eating Gilbert Grape was Leo’s annoying, loud caricature of intellectual disability. Nevertheless, he received a coveted Oscar nomination for his painful performance. Dr. Gregg Beratan, a disability activist at the Center For Disability Rights, was not surprised by the lack of disabled nominees this awards season: “As long as Hollywood prefers caricatured performances by nondisabled actors cripping up, we will be denied the opportunity of seeing the many wonderful disabled actors display their talents and earn acting awards.”

On the rare occasion that a disabled character is given a major storyline, it is always one of three plots: “You can’t love me because I’m disabled!” “Heal me!” or “Better off dead.” The number one excuse used by casting directors who don’t cast disabled is that the film or show has flashbacks. I could never understand how it was OK to sacrifice the authenticity of an entire film or series for the sake of a two-second flashback. One of my favorite comedic actors, Danny Woodburn, agrees with me: “If our industry can use computer graphics, makeup, and visual effects to give able-bodied actors the chance to portray persons with disability, then the opposite must be insisted upon, if we are going to consider opportunities and accessibility to roles equal.”

The disabled community is the largest minority group in America and by far the most underrepresented in media. According to the Annenberg Report, only 2.4 percent of speaking roles were disabled in 2016. It gets better: only 19 percent of those were disabled women, and absolutely none of them were LGBT. In the history of the Academy Awards, only one visibly disabled actress has ever won an Oscar. Marlee Matlin miraculously managed to snag a statue, and that was 30 years ago. The only man with a visible disability to win an Oscar was Harold Russell, 70 years ago. Last awards season, when the Oscars got roasted for being so white, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs released a statement committing to diversify the Academy. She mandated the inclusion of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—but not disability. In the year that Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for cripping up, we were once again left out. There is no diversity without disability—that’s what the “D” stands for.

Aside from the lack of positive and permanent disabled presence in media, there is also the fact that nondisabled actors are still cripping up. Many in the disabled community believe that visible disability, much like race, cannot be played. We find the performances that win awards cartoonish and inauthentic. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé in a biopic, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user. As a child, I was traumatized when Daniel Day-Lewis, who I thought had CP just like me, strolled up on stage, palsy-free, to grab his Oscar for his role in My Left Foot. I immediately raced to my father and asked that he heal me.

Disabled film director and founder of #FilmDis, Dominick Evans, has watched hundreds of films featuring characters cripping up. “Disabled people do not have to pretend to be disabled,” he pointed out. “They simply are. Their attention can be focused on actually acting, not attempting to take on a series of physical stereotypes and tropes, because that is how disability is portrayed in Hollywood.”

A character does not have to be written as disabled to be played by a disabled actor, but casting directors and producers seem to have failed to take that leap of faith. Having lived with CP my whole life, I can tell you that it is often the least of my problems. Why aren’t disabled actors given the chance to play one of the Gladiators on Scandal or one of the lost souls on The Good Place?

There have been glimmers of hope. Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, Geri Jewell on The Facts of Life and later slaying on Deadwood, Daryl Hannah from Splash to Kill Bill, Chris Burke on the fantastic Life Goes On, RJ Mitte on Breaking Bad, and now Micah Fowler on Speechless have shown American audiences what disabled actors bring to a role that no other actor could. When we protest the casting of nondisabled actors, the response we often get is a claim that they auditioned disabled actors but none were good enough. Basically they’re saying that a nondisabled actor acts disabled better than the real deal. I don’t buy it. Actors Access, a platform that directly connects performers to casting directors, includes more than 4,000 actors who identify as disabled. The talent exists. Nondisabled actors need to start turning down these roles. They need to accept the reality that cripping up is outdated and offensive. We are 20 percent of the American population, and we need to at least double our numbers to become 5 percent of who you see on TV. Auditions for disabled roles need to be held in accessible spaces. Studios being built need to be ADA compliant. Always assume someone on the crew or cast will be disabled instead of always assuming we won’t be included. At the 2017 Golden Globes, disability did get one yuge shout out. I clapped like a seal when the incomparable Meryl Streep condemned Donald Trump for mocking disability. Then I slunk back in my seat when I remembered that Hollywood may not mock us, but they absolutely do shun us.

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Disability, Media, WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program
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