Whenever a film or TV show comes along which centres on characters with disabilities, my ears prick up with both interest and apprehension. Will the actors involved possess the disabilities of the roles they portray or will they turn out to be non-disabled actors taking on the ultimate challenge – with major awards and a place in the movie hall of fame as potential rewards?
In 2004, the BBC’s In Touch programme asked me to review a radio drama about Louis Braille and the tactile reading system which bears his name. In this review I challenged the casting of a sighted actor in the title role. Not everyone with a visual impairment shared my concerns, denouncing my review as unfair while saying that it didn’t matter whether or not the actor was blind so long as it was a good show. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion and it is healthy that we as blind people have not slipped into a predictable ‘group think’. However, had the producer of the play heard In Touch that night, the succour they received from my fellow blind people would no doubt have reinforced their sense of entitlement to uphold the status quo.
Come As You Are
So here we are again with a major movie release, this time featuring not one but three prominent disabled roles. Anyone hoping that Come As You Are would break new ground in casting will be disappointed.
So does it matter? It does to me, but then as a blind actor it would. When I discover blind male characters of my playing age on telly, I immediately speculate indignantly on why I wasn’t invited to audition. Professional envy is compounded by bitter resentment when I find that the actor hired to play the part is not blind in real life.
What’s the problem?
Putting my bias to one side, should it matter in general? After all, acting is about pretending to be someone else, using the ‘magic if’ to develop a character. Furthermore, if disability does not feature enough in mainstream culture, ought we to welcome all the representation we can get, regardless of casting?
And yet, even having conceded these points, I can never feel at peace with the fact that, when it is expedient so to do, the performance industry will turn its attention to disability while omitting to include disabled people in those projects. In a world which has still to learn how to comfortably and progressively encompass disability, it is hard for me to feel content about the casting of non-disabled actors in disabled roles. Put it this way: we get to live the disability while the non-disabled actor gets to embark on an exciting film project with its attendant rewards of cash, adulation and career-enhancing exposure – how does that work?
Does it work both ways?
Perhaps it would all be okay if it worked both ways: for instance, if blind actors were cast in sighted roles, then we could feel less negative about sighted actors taking blind roles. It is hard to envisage many film makers sparing a second’s thought on this. To them, disability equals risk, and risk is unnecessary when you have world class actors eager to impress us with their remarkable ability to resemble someone with a disability. It would be interesting to ask a few questions of the actors involved, such as ‘How do you as a non-disabled actor justify taking on disabled roles?’ This could be followed with ‘What about your peers, your fellow professionals who are disabled? Were you unaware of them?’ finally, I would ask ‘Would you not tell the producers to look for an actor with the right credentials?’ I can’t imagine such questions being asked on a prime time chat show, but it would be interesting to speculate upon the answers.
How they defend it
A common defence of this kind of casting from producers is that they looked for a disabled actor but couldn’t find anyone good enough. The fact is that people with disabilities can and do pursue careers in acting but my prejudice tells me nearly all of them are forced to go without drama training. The drama schools are not admitting enough disabled applicants so there is a dearth of disabled actors with the requisite experience and skills to appeal to producers and casting agents. Equally, arguments such as lack of time or a scarcity of credible disabled candidates are effective excuses because there is no way to verify them.
Or does having a disability render us unable to act well enough, making it necessary to leave it to those better qualified? I once heard an argument to this effect many years ago when I criticised Daniel Day-Lewis for portraying Christie Brown, an Irish writer who had cerebral palsy. I was treated to the counter-argument that someone with cerebral palsy would not be able to cope with filming and all that it entailed. Arguably, this generalisation was out of order since it came from somebody with no lived experience of cerebral palsy and based upon assumption and hearsay. But is not this often the case, that judgments affecting the aspirations of disabled people are made by those not necessarily in possession of the relevant knowledge or understanding? The disabled experience of employment, training and education is full of instances of this. That is why this issue matters as it is not just the movie industry where non-inclusivity flourishes.
Who ‘owns’ disability?
But there is a sting in the tail of this article. I have so far avoided one very important question. It is one I am reluctant to ask. It is not directed at actors and film makers but at ourselves. That question is should we have the right to own disability? Developing it further, should creative work about disability be the preserve or province of disabled people? In practice it is not, but do we have the right to strive for exclusive ownership? If I am tempted to answer yes, perhaps I ought to consider that disability has been an ever-present part of the human story and exists in our shared consciousness so it is therefore the property of everybody. Reminding myself of this reduces my emotional response to instances of discriminatory film casting. For how long the blow will stay softened remains to be seen. Maybe when Come As You Are opens, the proof will be in whether or not I can bring myself to go and see it.
London Vision Project Coordinator, and actor – check out his IMDB page here.