As the cameras focus on the scene in front of them, the actor carefully transforms himself to become his character. Restricted as he is from delivering the same presence that he is used to, he speaks his lines with great feeling and conviction. As the last words are spoken, he gazes into the camera mournfully, one final time. The screen fades to black. A relieved smile replaces the mournful gaze. Standing tall, he shakes off the weight of the disability he had staged so impeccably, and walks away, glad that he doesn’t have to be confined to the wheelchair any longer.
It is not a secret that most actors and actresses in the movie or television industries that are portrayed as being disabled do not have a disability in real life. There have been very many disabled characters whose parts have been acted by able-bodied actors. Consider the following list:
- Professor Xavier, X-Men, played by Patrick Stewart
- Jake Sully, Avatar, played by Sam Worthington
- Artie Abrams, Glee, played by Kevin McHale
- Henry F. Potter, It’s A Wonderful Life, played by Lionel Barrymore
- Raymond Babbitt, Rainman, played by Dustin Hoffman
- Luke Martin, Coming Home, played by Jon Voigt
- Sam Dawson, I Am Sam, played by Sean Penn
- Christy Brown, My Left Foot, played by Daniel Day Lewis
- Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July, played by Tom Cruise
- Justin Yoder, Miracle in Lane 2, played by Frankie Muniz
- Jerome Eugene Morrow, Gattaca, played by Jude Law
- John Locke, Lost, played by Terry O’Quinn
- Stevie Kenarban, Malcolm in the Middle, played by Craig Lamar Traylor
- Hazel Grace Lancaster, The Fault in Our Stars, played by Shailene Woodley
Before I go any further, please understand that I am in no way doubting the ability of able-bodied actors to perform these roles extremely well. However, this common occurrence does strike me as incredibly unfair. There are people who could portray these characters who really do have a disability and could perform amazingly. But the movie and television industries operate under the belief that having someone who is not disabled play someone who is will be a challenge for that actor. They have to perform at the same time as pretending to have a disability, which is very difficult. And we wouldn’t want to take away an actor’s chance to choose to play a disabled character, if he wanted to. That wouldn’t be fair.
This is quite a compelling argument. Actors should be able to play any part they want. They should have the right to choose to play any characters they would like. That would be fair. That would be equal. That would be right. Right? To answer that question, let’s look at this from the other side. Even if a disabled actor wanted to, he simply could not play an able-bodied character. No amount of “it’s only fair” would allow that to happen. So, if disabled actors cannot play any part they want, is it really fair to say an able-bodied actor can play any disabled character he wants? Is that fair? Is that equal? Is that right? I don’t think so.
In an age when we have become increasingly concerned about equal rights, we have made great strides in the fight for equality. Gone are the days when it was acceptable for a white man to play a person of color. Gone are the days when a woman was expected to follow the image of June Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver and only stay in the home and raise children. In general, society has championed the cause of equal access to people with disabilities in all areas of public life. However, despite all the progress made, disabled actors are still being discriminated against in the film and television industries.
Unfortunately, quite often these industries just won’t put in the effort needed to find and cast disabled actors. The usual response on the part of the producers is that they did try to cast disabled actors, but none of them were good enough for the part, so they went with someone more qualified for the job. This response should reveal a vicious cycle. If disabled young people don’t have a role model in performers with disabilities, they will get a message that they will never make it in Hollywood, so why even try? Why bother pursuing their dream, when they will not be accepted?
This point should bring about an even deeper discussion. Why aren’t legitimately disabled people being cast as disabled characters? After all, it would be more accurate, and it would bring an added dimension to the character that only someone who is truly living with a disability could bring. I believe the answer lies in Hollywood’s obsession with perfection. They are constantly looking for people with perfect bodies to cast in their movies and shows. Even as characters with disabilities, they must not have any imperfection outside of that disability. And the sad reality is that disabled people do not fit in the mold of what the industry is looking for. The message that comes across is clear: If you are really disabled, you are not good enough. You are imperfect, and so there is no place for you here. You cannot be allowed to be seen.
The movie and TV industries need to realize that casting able-bodied actors in disabled roles is not right. It may be easier. It may save them from having to go out and find people who do not conform to their image of perfection. But that does not make it okay. That does not change the fact that, at the core, this practice is unfair and demeaning to disabled people. People with disabilities do not need people acting like them. They do not need someone who sets impossible standards for their appearance. And they most certainly do not need to be given the message that they are not good enough to even be visible. What they need are people who will stand with them, not over them. People who will say that enough is enough. People who will speak out the truth that people with disabilities are worthy of the same opportunities as able-bodied people. What they need are allies, not just charitable benefactors.