Disability in books, media and the entertainment industry!

Should disabled actors stick to playing characters with their disabilities? Or should they be given the opportunity to play characters with other disabilities that differ to their own?

Disclaimer:  Once again this post might be a little controversial and I know that not everyone will agree with what has been written here.  And this one might be a bit more of a sensitive topic, and everyone will feel differently.  I’m not expecting everyone to see things the way I do, but once again this is how I see things and what my thoughts and feelings are on the subject matter.  Weather you agree or not, I hope this piece is interesting to read all the same.

In the last blog post we looked at able bodied actors playing disabled characters, and weather it was something questionable.  We looked at inclusion of disabled actors playing disabled characters as they can make the film look more authentic.  In this post I want to look at and explore the idea of weather disabled actors should play only roles that involve their own disability. So this time I’m asking, Should disabled people stick to what they know, and only take on roles for characters with the same disability as their own? Or should they be allowed to play characters with other disabilities that differ from the ones they already have?  What about disabled people playing able bodied characters, should they be given the opportunity to take on those roles?  My thoughts on this is simply that yes they should be allowed to play any part they desire, weather it be a character with their actual disability, or a character with a different disability to their own, or even an able bodied character.  Considering of course that they can actually play those parts, and they actually are good at playing those parts.  Not just for the sake of ticking boxes.

There are many reasons why I feel that they shouldn’t be restricted in what parts they play.  Firstly there are not many opportunities in the first place for disabled actors playing disabled parts, because lets face it the reality is that there are still far few films with disabled characters in them.  If we put on too many restrictions and say that disabled actors should only play parts with their own disabilities, then they’ll have less opportunities to go for parts.  Because as I say disabled characters are still scarce and said actors could be waiting for ages for a part with a character who has their exact disability.  What I’m trying to say is, that even if there are films with disabled characters in, say a few films with them in, the range of disabilities might still be few even if there are two or three films out together, or close enough together.

Say for example we’ve had Theory of Everything, Me before you, and Breath, all came out near enough similar times.  But all three films were about characters that were quadriplegic.  Because that’s what was trending at the time of writing, and yes in the world of both books, and films, there are certain trends that pop up and authors and film writers will write stories based around certain topics that are trending at the time.  Believe me I’ve noticed, but that’s another story, for another blog post on a different blog site for another day.  So if we have restrictions in place that only allow disabled people to play only their disabilities, then these actors could be waiting years or months before something comes up with their own disability in them.

Besides I think it’s stupid really to say that disabled people can’t or shouldn’t play characters with other disabilities.  Why should it be that they should stick to their actual disabilities?  I really don’t think they should be restricted anyhow, as long as their disability will allow them to play roles with something different then they should be given that opportunity to do so.  After all it is acting, and as I’ve said in my last post that acting is all about stepping into someone else’s shoes and pretending to be someone else.  Getting the chance to explore different things, scenarios, and different lives that are different to one’s own.  That’s what actors do when making these films and stories, they step into a world unlike their own, using imagination and wonder into their acting.

While authenticity is important in making a film look and feel real, the role of an actor is not about just telling a story.  In order to tell that story, you have to become someone else.  As I mentioned in my last post, we do this as children in order to explore ideas, stories and the world around us.  We use our imagination and build worlds and fantasies out of this world.  And that’s what acting and film making is all about.  They are fantasies, stories, and unreal scenarios being played out onto a screen.  It’s all about pretending to be someone else and shedding one’s own skin.

Children do this all the time and I was no different.  As a child I loved role play and acting out different scenarios, because it meant I got to be someone completely different that wasn’t me. I wanted to make so many changes to myself, that role playing gave me the opportunity to completely change myself and be whoever I wanted to be.  To be someone completely different.  I remember playing out stories and scenarios as a child, putting myself into other people’s shoes, imagining being someone else.  Someone not like me, someone so different to my real self, to the point I wouldn’t recognise myself in the characters.

I was a very curious child and when I discovered role play and the fact that I could be anyone I wanted, I took every opportunity that I could get to explore the world of people that were different to myself. I would have done anything back then, to be anyone other than me. Disability was no exception.  I wanted to explore and see what it was like for other people, and what it would be like to have a different disability to the ones I had myself.  I was born with congenital rubella syndrome, and with it come multiple disabilities and defects.  I am visually impaired, have a hole in the heart, low muscle tones and a few other things.  But I had been exposed to children and people with different disabilities and found this rather fascinating.  Which in turn made me very curious and had me wondering what the world was like through their eyes, in their world.  What was it like living with that disability rather than my own.

I was fascinated by sign language and thought it was something so cool, because deaf people and those children with speech impediments had a whole language that almost no one else could speak or understand.  During the school runs on the buses to school, where special needs kids traveled to school and back, I’d often watch the deaf kids and kids with speech impediments talk and sign to each other as they played and chatted on the bus.  They’d soon seen what I’d seen, and even started playing games where sign language became a secret code language, and they were spies or secret agents with their own code language, keeping the rest of us out of their secret missions.  I’d often feel left out and wished I too had a secret code language I could speak with friends and be secret agents etc.

So sometimes in the games I’d play I’d pretend to be deaf and speak in made up sign language.  It wasn’t easy when playing the game with other VI kids, that idea died real fast at school.  But still was doable with my siblings.  I then one time moved onto pretending I was  a wheel chair user  and imagined I had a super fast wheel chair that I zoomed around in while trying to catch bad guys.  There were even times when I’d pretend to have different disabilities while playing school school, you know role playing being at school and being a student with a disability that was different to my own.  I don’t remember details to these games I played that involved other disabilities, but they happened, and I explored.

As well as the curiosity side of things, I hated my glasses with their thick ugly lens.  They made me feel ugly and kids often treated me like a monster, and wouldn’t talk to me.  I was picked on as a child, and called all sorts of names like four eyes, or goggly eyes etc.  So I was desperate to swap my ugly glasses for something else.  So I often imagined what it would have been like to have a different disability, to swap glasses for hearing aids, because they seemed a tiny bit more discreet.  Or something else perhaps that could be hidden.  My child brain thought that the answers to my problems were to swap my disability for something else, because I felt people were either nicer to them, or didn’t pick on them so much.  Although later as I grew a bit older, I realised people were not so nice to them either.  But this made me want to pretend to have something different and so I expressed that through play.

I felt that playing these roles were doable, and I wasn’t restricted or had any barriers doing it.  Ok the sign language thing was slightly unrealistic as I didn’t know real sign language, I just used different gestures and actions and made up my own signing.  But it didn’t stop me exploring.  I did pick up some things from watching those kids, so not all of it was gibberish.  I even remember making another friend of mine, who was visually impaired and had learning disabilities take on roles with other disabilities too, and he usually liked to do whatever I was doing and copy me.

So in our games it wasn’t just me.  I don’t know if other people have ever done that sort of thing, or if it’s just me.  All I know is I was a very strange and curious child. I wanted to explore everything and found people’s behaviour very fascinating.  Which is strange coming from me, because I was always uncomfortable around people, and not very peopley at all. Don’t get me wrong I wanted friends, but was very uncomfortable around people.  But again that’s a different story for a different time. I wanted to shed my skin and this was how I did it.

Coming back to acting in the entertainment industry, I don’t see why if we can do this as children, why we can’t do that as an adult when making films and going for certain roles.  If as children we can explore and take on the role of other disabilities and life experiences, then we should be able to do that as adults.  It shouldn’t stop at childhood.  Acting is all about exploration and telling stories.  One of the reasons why I loved role play was that it was a way of telling stories, and that’s exactly what I was doing when role playing in the same way films are another way of story telling.  So if a visually impaired person wants to take on a role for a character that is wheelchair bound, or paralyzed and can’t move, so let them.  If a deaf none verbal person wants to take on the role of a none verbal autistic person, then so be it.  Disability shouldn’t have to be a restricted thing, given that the actor will be able to play those roles and their own disability won’t hinder that.

Moving on then lets look at disabled actors playing able bodied characters.  You know what I’m going to say don’t you?  In my opinion, yes, they should be able to play the role of an able bodied person in the same way an able bodied person can play a disabled character.  As I have said and will stress, acting is all about pretending, about becoming someone else, and that can include in it’s entirety.  Give an amputee a prosthetic limb to remove the fact that they are an amputee and they can play the role quite well.  Someone who is partially sighted will be able to play someone who has sight and can hide those visual impairments given the right accessibility to play those roles, and so on.

People with autism, or mild visual impairments, or hidden disabilities do this on a daily basis anyway.  They almost have to act in their real lives to hide their disability in order to fit in and function socially and physically in an able bodied world, in order to work or be a part of a group etc.  So why not be able to take on roles with able bodied parts.  People often tell me that I can pass off as normal, if you don’t look or watch too carefully, my nuances, and differences are not very noticeable.  I’m not sure how much of that is actually true, or if people are being too kind though, I mean I’m constantly rubbing my nails, even if discreetly, I’m still doing it.  I have a head tilt I cannot control, perhaps it’s not as bad as it used to be, and I have twitches in my neck, which cause my mouth to look like I’m grimacing I’m sure.  But apparently these things are not noticeable and I hide them well enough to seem normal.  Either way I have to put on a lot of effort to hide those things and pretend and act as normal as I can.

So therefore if I can do this on a daily basis in an environment where I am constantly exposed to members of the public, then if I was an actress I’d be able to do it when making a film.  So saying someone’s disability would be a barrier to playing able bodied person isn’t enough as a reason.  It can be done, with support and accessibility.  My CRS you have to remember is very mild, so I probably could pass off as normal, and with a lot of effort I could stop and hide the stimming.  The twitching would be harder, but if I keep it to a minimum I could do it.  My point is disabled people should be given that chance to try, and if they can hide certain things and are able to pass off as normal, then give them the opportunity.  If they can do it with extra help and support, then film producers etc should make provisions for that person to support them in making it possible to play those roles.

If people want to use the excuse that it’s about authenticity, well as I’ve said before.  I don’t have a problem with able bodied actors playing disabled characters, yes having an able bodied actor playing an able bodied character gives it more authenticity, because disabled people might not completely be able to take on that role, well if able bodied actors can play disabled characters, then disabled actors can play able bodied characters.  As I have mentioned before the opportunity of playing a disabled character is far few and far less, which leaves less opportunity for disabled actors to play those roles.

They should have as much opportunity to gain jobs in the film industry by not putting restrictions and allowing them to play these roles.  There needs to be more inclusion in the film and entertainment industry for disabled people, and they should not be discriminated for that.  Hollywood and the entertainment industry is still one of  the most discriminatory work environment, and lack equal opportunities for those in minority and marginalised groups and this needs to change.  Disability is one of the things that needs to change, we are still not seeing enough done for disabled people in the entertainment industry.  Last week was the first time to my knowledge that actors have spoken out about inclusion for disabled actors in the entertainment industry.

It was reported last week that Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Mark Roffalo, a group of celebrities joined an open letter calling for inclusion for disabled actors.  So we are headed in the right direction, but still this is only a few and there needs to be more.  All we can do is to keep blogging, talking and keep the conversation going.  Make our voices heard and keep doing what we’re doing. This shows that someone is listening.  And we need them to hear us loud and clear.  There needs to be more inclusion of disabled actors, and more celebrities need to call the film industry out in the same way they are doing for equal right for women, race and so on in the film industry.  Hopefully the big fish in Hollywood, and other entertainment industries take this on board and make changes and stop discriminating those with a disability.

One last bit of author’s note before I go.  While I hated who I was as a child and was unhappy in my own skin, I no longer feel this way about myself.  It took a long time to come to terms with things and be happy with who I am.  I leaned that we are all flawed and while sometimes it seems others are having a better time of things, it turns out that not everything is as it seems.  As I mentioned i learned that people with other disabilities did get picked on, and did have bad attitudes to deal with just like me.  That I wasn’t alone. 

I’ve since learned that even those who seem so perfect, so beautiful and confident are even flawed.  I’m slowly learning to love myself, but staying humble and not too boastful of course.  I’ve learned that within my flaws there is a person I like within me.  Instead of looking at my flaws, to look at my better qualities, like my personality for one.  I like who I am. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but that I have learned to live with my flaws and enjoy the better part of me.  That there are some good things to  me, among the not so good things. I can’t really articulate what it is I’m trying to say but anyhow, I’m just saying I’m not the child I once was.  I still put myself down at times, but not so badly.  I’m just saying you don’t have to look at me with pity after reading that post.

So what I will say to you is that, if you are one of those people that find it hard to love yourself, to see the beauty and talents within yourself, don’t look to others and wish for what they have.  Learn to accept yourself as you are, because no one else will do that for you.  Because even with your flaws, you are amazing just the way you are!!!

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