Story at a glance

  • The disability community is historically underrepresented in the entertainment industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
  • While social movements like #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have begun to move the needle for minorities in the industry, those with disabilities continue to be overlooked.
  • The conversation surrounding who should be able to play disabled characters has begun to shift — marked by recent controversies — hopefully making way for more disabled actors and actresses to land coveted lead roles.
  • Progress in the industry has been made in the form of landmark new films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”

Amongst the controversies currently swirling about the entertainment industry are questions regarding accurate and fair representations of minorities in television shows, movies and plays. While the conversation and progress thus far has tended to lean toward turning the tides for non-males and ethnic groups — it may finally be time that we see disability inclusion onscreen and behind the camera.

Around the world productions of the holiday-themed Broadway classic “A Christmas Carol” have been hiring young disabled actors to play the role of Tiny Tim. Directors and producers of primetime television shows have started to realize the value of hiring crews with disabilities. The public has become increasingly tired of seeing able-bodied actors snapping up rare and coveted roles for disabled characters and are making their voices heard.

The big question now is: what that inclusion will look like, and who will actually be invited to join the party.

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Problematic casting, problematic storylines

Back in 2016 the movie “Me Before You” came out, initially exciting the disability community with the first quadriplegic lead role in a long time; then came the realization of the ending. Will, played by able-bodied actor Sam Claflin, became paralyzed from the neck down following a motorcycle accident, and at the end of the movie he dies by assisted suicide , despite the protests of his lover and caretaker Louisa — telling her in a note to go “live boldy” without him and the restrictions of his disability. The plotline of the film was viewed by many as ableist, presenting Will’s quadriplegia as an unbearable circumstance and a burden on his loved ones, but the problems with the movie don’t end there.

“Why was no effort made to hire a disabled actor to play Sam Claflin’s part? He spends five minutes of the movie as an able-bodied person, a small cluster of scenes that could’ve easily been cut or modified,” pens Ryan O'Connell, a disabled writer in an essay for Vulture. “There are so few opportunities for quadriplegic actors in the first place; with this there was finally a prime opportunity to showcase one, but the producers were like, ‘Nah, just get some able-bodied British guy and tell him not to move anything from the neck down, K?’”

Following the controversy of “Me Before You” was the more recent release of 2019’s “The Upside,” starring able-bodied actor Bryan Cranston as a quadriplegic who hires a parolee named Dell, played by Kevin Hart, to assist him with his everyday routine. The two films share similarities in their protagonists — once-badass, now sour, wealthy men who share an unlikely bond with their caretakers, both played by white and able-bodied men. Some may call these representations exploitative of the disabled, an attempt to tug at the heartstrings of viewers without actually benefiting the disability community by way of employment or even accurate representation. When so seldomly there are disabled actors playing disabled roles, it calls into question just how many are getting employed behind the screen as well.

An overlooked minority

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“It amazes me how, right here in the Upper West Side, I'll have progressive members of our [filmmaking] community who are involved in a lot of great work say to me ‘I don't do disability or you know, it’s too hard for me.’ Imagine them saying that about any other minority population,” says Isaac Zablocki. “I see where people with disabilities are so much in the shadows, and therefore I think there's a need to level the playing field, or at least overcompensate as much as possible by putting them in the spotlight...so we get more Peter Dinklages who can play mainstream roles.”

Zablocki is the co-founder and New York Director of the ReelAbilities Film Festival — the largest festival in the U.S. dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with disabilities. Since its founding in 2007, the festival has presented award-winning films both by and about people with disabilities, also encouraging engagement and increased understanding about the community through post-screening discussions.

“[The disability community] is kind of an overlooked minority, and when even Hollywood has made attempts to diversify, often people with disabilities are not the direction they want to take.”

Despite comprising nearly 20 percent of the population, statistics on hires for below-the-line jobs are incredibly low for the disabled. For those getting screen time the numbers aren’t much better. In a rigorous report on equality in entertainment, researcher Stacy Smith found that just 2.4 percent of characters in the top 100 movies who spoke or had actual names had disabilities. It may seem like a steep hill to climb to achieve accurate representation, but Zablocki thinks inclusion riders might be the first step we need to take.

Steps toward progress

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"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider."

When actress Frances McDormand spoke those words at the closing of her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, the term was relatively unknown in the industry. Now inclusion riders, contract clauses for actors that require filmmakers to meet diversity benchmarks in their cast and crew, are making true headway. Actor Michael B. Jordan took one of the first steps, pledging in 2018 that his company Outlier Society Productions would adopt the rider for its projects.

“In less than a year the inclusion rider has moved from concept to concrete actions that creatives and companies are employing to counter biases in hiring across entertainment, sports, theater, and technology,” says the founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Stacy L. Smith in an interview with Forbes.

Actors and actresses with disabilities also have more to worry about than just being hired for a role though — they need those roles to exist in the first place. Even Peter Dinklage, now considered a household name by many for his role of Tyrion in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” has mainly played characters that were partially defined by their disabilities, by their dwarfism. Few are roles — never mind — lead roles, that depict a disabled character with the multi-dimensional qualities they should be. When they do, many times they’re snapped up by able-bodied actors that directors believe will bring people to the box office. But that may not be the case anymore.

“In the disability world there's a running joke that anytime an actor wants an Oscar, you know, play for a disability role and you'll get the awards,” says Zablocki. “It means people with disabilities often can't get those roles. There's way more competition. Also, people's disabilities mean they unfortunately aren’t often considered for mainstream roles.”

Recent box office hit “The Peanut Butter Falcon” features big names like Shia Labeouf and Dakota Johnson, but the movie was actually written for a previously unknown actor named Zack Gottsagen. After meeting directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz at camp, Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome, told them about his dream of acting, saying “write and direct and then I could be the star.” They did just that — spending the next five years writing the script that would one day make Gottsagen a star.

The film has gone on to win multiple awards and critics’ praise, including a thumbs up from Roger Ebert. “The conversation about ‘representation’ in cinema often excludes the disabled,” writes Ebert in his review. “Able-bodied actors play disabled characters all the time, and sometimes win Oscars for it. This is not to say that these aren't good or empathetic performances, but all you have to do is watch Gottsagen's performance to see what we are missing when we discount the complaints of the disabled community in re: representation. It is inconceivable to imagine an able-bodied ‘name’ playing this role and bringing to it even half of what Gottsagen does naturally.”

Published on Dec 12, 2019