About a year ago, I was out grocery shopping at Sprouts when a smiling, animated woman pushing her shopping cart came up to me and said, “Oh, it’s so nice to see that you’re out!” I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I replied with a polite “thank you” and moved on. So I’m not allowed to go out and live my life? I thought. How unsettling. This is only one of many examples of situations I have faced as a person with a disability when I’m doing everyday activities in my community.
It struck me as strange because I’ve always gone out and done such activities. Because I’m human. Activities an able-bodied person would do while not being looked at as achieving anything extraordinary. Going grocery shopping is far from extraordinary, but when talking amongst fellow peers and advocates with disabilities, similar stories are shared.
Another memory that stands out in my mind occurred when I was sixteen years old. An avid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I remember watching an episode in the show’s seventh season where a large group of potential slayers were fighting tooth and nail against that season’s “Big Bad.” Although there were a number of young women fighting in the scenes, not one of them had a physical disability.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, pointing to the television screen. “Wouldn’t it be cool if I was in that scene?” I imagined what it might be like for a person with a disability to be a vampire slayer. The thought had occurred to me on many occasions, not because I wanted to be an actress, but because I wanted to see a character like me (bonus points if the actress was a wheelchair user, too!) in such a well-known show with a cult following. However, Buffy was and still is a powerful television series with strong feminist underpinnings amongst the vast mass media landscape.
As an aspiring television writer and disability rights advocate, I feel the insatiable need to write about characters with disabilities in my scripts because disability representation in the media remains disparagingly underrepresented. But I also realize that it isn’t just about me writing those scripts and getting my perspective out there. It’s also about casting. If there are disability specific roles in a script, then actors with disabilities should be portraying them. Even if the roles aren’t disability specific, actors with disabilities should still be given the opportunity to play those roles.
Notable actors and actresses who have disabilities and who portray or have portrayed characters with disabilities include R.J. Mitte (Breaking Bad), Marlee Matlin (Switched At Birth), Mat Fraser (American Horror Story), Chris Burke (Life Goes On) and Geri Jewell (The Facts of Life, Deadwood) to name a few.
People with disabilities represent the largest minority group (because anyone, at any point, can acquire a disability at any time in their life); however, they are still poorly represented within mainstream media. While there have been efforts made to change this, there’s still a LONG way to go. It’s still far too common to see an able-bodied actor portraying a character with a disability, only to receive an Oscar or a Golden Globe for their performance. Most recently, the winners of Best Performance by an Actor AND Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) went to Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice). Both portrayed characters with disabilities, yet the actors themselves are not disabled.
Actress and disability advocate Teal Sherer created the web series My Gimpy Life, which offers a comedic view of her own experiences as an actress with a disability in Hollywood. In a 2013 NPR interview, she said, “If we lose an opportunity to audition, then we lose an opportunity to move forward in our career.” The comedy is smart and engaging, shedding light on experiences that many wheelchair users, myself included, can relate to.
In May 2005, the Screen Actors Guild conducted a case study entitled “The Employment of Performers with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry.” Participants of this study were asked to describe the three biggest obstacles for performers with disabilities in getting an acting job. Those obstacles were: 1.) Only being considered for disability-specific roles 2.) General lack of acting jobs 3.) Obtaining an audition. Though the study was done in 2005, I believe many of the same issues still hold true today and it’s almost ten years later.
So what can be done to shift perceptions? Professional unions such as the Writers with Disabilities Committee (part of the Writers Guild of America) and the Performers with Disabilities Committee (part of the Screen Actors Guild) are working towards changing this, but a lot of ground still remains unpaved.
Whether performing, writing for television or creating a film, all of these artistic endeavors involve some degree of collaboration. Someday I’d like to see a television show or web series that is written, directed and led by innovative women with disabilities. I’d love to see a wonderful actress portray a role in a television series or film that wasn’t written as something disability specific, but as just another role. I hope to see more actors, writers, directors, editors and cinematographers with disabilities make up the norm of the fabric of Hollywood, not just be the rare exception.
Maybe, if more individuals with disabilities were represented both in front of and behind the camera, going grocery shopping wouldn’t seem like such an exceptional feat of perseverance. It would just be an ordinary occurrence.
To quote the late Australian disability advocate, writer and comedian Stella Young, “Disability doesn’t make you exceptional. But questioning what you think you know about it does.”
Bates, Karen G. “Actors With Disabilities In Big Roles? ‘We Don’t Have A Chance'” NPR. NPR, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.
Raynor, Ph.D, Olivia, and Katharine Hayward, Ph.D, MPH. The Employment of Performers with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry. Los Angeles: n.p., May 2005. PDF.
“Stella Young: I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.” YouTube. YouTube, 9 June 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.