Incapacity in Media: Reel-Time Misperceptions

A full year ago I applied for a background actor role on a major network television show. The casting call explicitly stated that they were looking for people using mobility aids such as wheelchairs, walking sticks, walking aids, etc. As a lifelong wheelchair user, I applied and got the job. I showed up on the day of filming, filmed a scene that lasted about an hour, and then waited for directions for the next scene. We were then told to go outside to take the bus to the next set. Little did I know the next set was in a different location, but I assumed that since they watered for disabled people and knew I was in a wheelchair, they would provide accessible transportation. Unfortunately I was wrong. A production assistant soon came up to me and said, “Good news and bad news.” “The bad news is that transport to the next set is inaccessible,” he said. “The good news is you’re packed up for the day early!” I was amazed and angry. They knew I was in a wheelchair, but instead of offering alternative, accessible transportation, they decided to send me home, denying me the opportunity to gain more experience on set, screen time, and consideration of my accessibility needs. I wish I could say my experience was unique, but artists with disabilities are often exposed to many levels of discrimination and exclusion.

Although disabled people make up 26% of the US population, disabled characters make up only 5% of television characters. In addition, 95% of them are portrayed by non-disabled actors. A University of Southern California study of representation in film and television from 2015 to 2019 found that over half (58) of the 100 best films of 2018 did not include a disabled character in any role and 83 films did not include a female character with a disability. Of all the films that had a disabled character in the past four years, 72.5% were male, 63.1% white, and only two were LGB (lesbian, gay, or bisexual), showing a significant lack of diversity.

According to a 2016 survey by the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabled actors with invisible disabilities were more likely to receive auditions and roles than visibly disabled actors. When asked about their experiences in the entertainment industry, 75 out of 177 disabled respondents said they had had negative experiences. One anonymous respondent said, “The biggest challenge I’ve faced is people’s prejudice. When they find out that I am visually impaired, they worry that I cannot do the job as well as others. Many directors have told me that I respect never telling other directors about my disability because I am not being called. “

“Cripping up” is a term that the disabled community often uses to describe non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. Some well-known examples of the ripping are Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot. All of these actors have won Oscars for portraying disabled characters. This is not surprising as nominated non-disabled actors playing disabled characters are almost 50% more likely to win.

Little thought, however, is given about how the rift is affecting the disabled community. Even when disabled characters are displayed on the screen, they are often displayed negatively. Films like Me Before You or Million Dollar Baby show main characters who become disabled because they feel that life is not worth living and sometimes even express a desire to end their lives. Will, the wealthy main character in Me Before You, becomes quadriplegic in an accident, falls in love with his caretaker and has many options and money to do what he wants in life, but ultimately decides to commit suicide because he doesn’t does want to live because of his disability. Similarly, Million Dollar Baby is the story of Maggie, a boxer who, after becoming quadriplegic, asks her trainer Frankie to help her end her life. After Maggie attempts suicide herself but fails, Frankie fulfills Maggie’s wish by killing her with a lethal injection of adrenaline. Films like this have been boycotted by disability activists for their harmful messages. In the recent remake of the film The Witches, actress Anne Hathaway, who plays a witch, uses an ancient method to make her visibly evil by splitting her hands, which ektrodactyly resembles disability, a difference between limbs created by missing Finger or toe marked creates a claw-like appearance. Disabled people, especially those with limb differences, protested the film by posting pictures with the hashtag #NotAWitch to indicate that disability does not mean evil. Hathaway responded with an apology on Instagram, but the film still serves as a reminder of how the media can misrepresent disability. Additionally, Sia’s new film Music, which she wrote and directed, has sparked controversy as the film revolves around an autistic character, but played by non-autistic actress and dancer Maddie Ziegler. Sia was criticized by autistic people for working with the group Autism Speaks, an extremely troublesome organization, for not casting any of the many autistic actors in the role. Sia, in turn, hit autistic actors on Twitter in several angry tweets, one of which was in response to one that questioned their decision not to star an autistic person, to which Sia replied, “Maybe it’s just you bad actor. “

It also seems clear that poor on-screen display of disabled people reflects lack of off-screen display. People with disabilities often struggle to find work in any field and working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry is no exception. “Nothing about us without us,” a phrase taken from South African disability rights advocates in the 1980s, is now used as a hashtag by disabled people who require the entertainment industry to consult and discontinue them, especially when films contain disabled characters .

Fortunately, some disabled people have recently broken through the entertainment industry, such as Ali Stroker, an actor and singer who first appeared in a wheelchair on Broadway on the Spring Awakening show. She was also the first person in a wheelchair to receive a Tony Award for her performance in the play Oklahoma! Won. Kiera Allen was the first woman in a wheelchair to appear in a lifelong Christmas movie, Run, RJ Mitte, which Walter White Jr. in the series Breaking Bad has cerebral palsy in real life, and Millicent Simmonds, who starred in the 2018 movie A Quiet Place, is actually deaf.

However, diversity still has a long way to go as all of these actors are Caucasian. The representation of intersectionality within the disabled community in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. has yet to be addressed. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit media organization for people with disabilities, said, “Entertainment contributes to our values ​​and ideals. With only 1.6 percent of speaking characters with disabilities in film compared to 25 percent of American adults with disabilities, we will continue to work with leading entertainment companies to promote positive, accurate, diverse, and inclusive media portraits on television and film. Disability affects every gender, race, age, and sexual orientation. We want the film industry to understand that accurate, authentic, and diverse depictions of disability benefit everyone. “

About the author: Cheyenne Leonard is a Fellow of the Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental Program, a founding grant created to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so they can write, research and report on key issues affecting the disabled community.

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