I am an able bodied actor.
Webster describes abled bodied as:
a·ble-bod·ied/ˌ an adjective 1. Meaning fit (meh, my jeans might say otherwise), strong (sure, I can do a couple of pushups from my toes), and healthy (ok but I don’t sleep enough and I probably drink too much); not physically disabled:
Ah, I see. I’m normal, or I appear “normal.” I have no discerning physical characteristics that would make me stand out in an able-bodied crowd, and yet recently I was cast to play a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. It was a wonderfully challenging experience but begs the question why not look for an actual actor dealing with MS?
As actors we jump at the chance to fill someone else’s shoes- that’s what we’re trained to do! In fact there is something so rewarding about filling those shoes, because no matter how difficult the circumstance, how brutal the emotional and/or physical pain, we can jump in with both (able-bodied) feet, committ like the Dickens, BUT ultimately shed that emotionally or physically “dis”-abled (Webster’s definition meaning “impaired” or “limited”) skin and go back to “normal” at the end of the experience. We crave the chance to play someone vastly different from ourselves, but at what cost to the community that character represents? As actors, who strive to bring truth and authenticity to our roles, should we admit there are things we cannot portray truthfully without experience? Although the concept of misrepresentation in the entertainment industry is certainly not new, social awareness of the levels of discrimination in certain communities is often underwhelming. I was schooled in this recently and wanted to share my findings.
Over the years we have been seeing more characters with disabilities on stage and screen as part of overall inclusion measures to represent a broader range of this 20% of our population. Shows like The Good Doctor, (that premiered last fall on ABC), is about the excellence yet awkwardness of an autistic surgeon and begs the question, brilliance over bedside manner? People fell in love with star quarterback turned paraplegic Jason, from Friday Night Lights, are charmed by the affable Artie on Glee, who uses a wheelchair, and most recently, were won over by Oscar nominated Sally Hawkins playing the vulnerable and beautiful mute Elisa in the BEST PICTURE WINNER, The Shape of Water. Hawkins’ portrayal of the open, childlike, and accepting Elisa, has been criticized for her less than stellar American Sign Language skills by the Deaf Community.
Why didn’t I know this?
Because I don’t know ASL, I didn’t notice the problem- I’m not deaf, so why would I? Finding this out is shocking, disappointing and shameful that the powers that be didn’t deem it necessary to either cast an actor who could properly represent this character's abilities OR give Hawkins the training needed to do a better job!
Sara Novic, a Deaf writer and assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University, addresses this very thing in an article she wrote for CNN. “It's no secret Hollywood has a representation problem. The film industry has been repeatedly called out in the media, and by some of its own, for its whitewashing on-screen and sexism behind the camera. Much less attention is paid to the equally prevalent problem of casting abled bodied actors in the role of disabled characters, a phenomenon the disabled community calls "cripping up." When disabled people do raise the issue, they are quickly silenced, accused of overreacting.” “Cripping Up.” Well there it is.
Locally, Mixed Blood just produced a beautiful production of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night, where the lead character is autistic. Persons with disabilities (PWD) actor MacGregor Arney, who has cerebral palsy, was astounding in the lead role. His accent, speech patterns, mannerisms, were beyond impressive, even down to a complicated hand tick, and how he methodically and bizarrely opens an envelope the exact same way every time. But ultimately, what I found very cool about this production was the choice to cast actor Regan Linton, as his teacher, Siobhan. Linton was in a wheelchair with no textual indication that it was scripted. Originally I thought it was a directorial choice because the two characters are so close but then, I discovered that Linton uses a wheelchair in real life. So what if it’s not specified in the script? She was awesome, empathetic, kind and their friendship is a highlight of the show! So, you have a non-autistic actor playing an autistic character, and an actor with a disability playing an able-bodied character. A lovely example of choosing the best actor for the role, regardless of color, sex, orientation, or ability.
Time to address the awkward term “blind” casting no? Just a thought.
Upon more research it is suggested that the acceptable term is “integrative casting, when referring to casting persons with different abilities.” Consequently, Syracuse Stage also did a recent production of Curious, and is the first to cast an actor with autism in the lead role: Mickey Rowe. “I think it’s theater’s job to change the world,” Mr. Rowe said, “I think it has a lot more power than it knows it has. And with that power comes great responsibility.”
Reading about Rowe and reviewing the Mixed Blood show really got me thinking about all of this. I know how frustrated I get when someone won’t cast me because of my look, my age, my sex, I’m an actor, let me at least try, that’s my job. And though actors with disabilities have been showing up more in roles that share their afflictions: Actor RJ Mitte from the show Breaking Bad does have cerebral palsy, as does his character Walt Jr. albeit a significantly milder case; Peter Dinklage is kicking ass and taking Emmys as Tyrion “the imp” Lannister on the top rated Game of Thrones; and ABC’s new family comedy “Speechless” stars Micah Fowler, a young actor with cerebral palsy. (On the show, which stars Minnie Driver as his mother, Fowler plays JJ, the family’s eldest child, who is nonverbal), I’m more excited to see more of this integrative casting in the way that Mixed Blood did with Linton.
It’s interesting to look at TV shows that are finally putting people with disabilities in what we would call “typical” rolls without apology, and creating more diversity in casting not just in colorblind or sexual orientation. Aimee Mullins, paraplegic athlete and model has found a recurring role as Eleven’s mother in Stranger Things seasons 1 and 2 and before that Jamie Brewer has embodied many a sassy and feisty role in several seasons of American Horror Story. The young actress has a burgeoning television career while also serving as a spokesperson for many Down Syndrome non-profit organizations.
There were some groundbreakers making waves in the 80’s: Academy Award winning (and deaf) actress Marlee Matlin and a little later, Chris Burke who is known for playing the first lead character on television with Down Syndrome for his part in the popular family drama, Life Goes On. These folks were on my radar, but few else. Seeing more and more people of different abilities taking the spotlight and challenging the status quo is inspiring. It shows that not only are there those tenacious people out there that won’t take “conformity” for an answer, it also shows that there are people willing to accept them (as they should) as part of their mainstream media. Novic concludes, and I agree, “recent smash hits such as ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Get Out’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ make it clear that audiences crave diverse stories and authentic representation, and the tickets most certainly sell. Until society stops holding up the...able-bodied person as the ‘default’ human, we disabled people will continue to be marginalized in and out of Hollywood. And until we include different kinds of normal in our cultural artifacts, that default will not change.” Here’s hoping that by continuing to raise voices and awareness we can facilitate this on going change.
**NOTE: I want to thank everyone who advised me in the writing of this piece. In publishing this I am trying to express support and hopefully add more awareness to issues that are deserving of it. However, I am not an expert and am open to learning more and continuing the conversation so please feel free to correct me, contact me, and/or explain anything I might have misrepresented or been insensitive to. I want to know and look forward to your feedback! By the way, I may be considered “able-bodied” but as someone who is being treated for chronic depression and an anxiety disorder, would I be considered “able-minded?” I think I’ll tackle mental health issues and discrimination in my next go ‘round...
For more reading on these issues check out the following links:
‘The Crip Crusader’ Dominik Evans:
New York Time: Theatre