Saturday, August 2, 2014


Christopher Shinn, The Atlantic - July 23, 2014

I’m not too bothered by non-disabled actors in disabled roles. By which I mean that seeing non-disabled actors play disabled roles doesn't spoil the experience for me, as long as they do it well. What matters most to me is whether portrayals are believable, and that depends mostly on writing and acting talent.

This article describes an interesting idea ... that audiences prefer seeing non-disabled actors in disability roles because it sort of protects them from seeing too much of a feared reality. I don’t think I quite buy it, though. I feel like most audiences are pretty game for raw authenticity, including seeing real disabled people playing disabled characters in TV, movies, and plays. If anything, I suspect it’s writers and directors who maybe fear the reality check their work will be subjected to by disabled actors.

"What if a real paraplegic tells me that my writing of the paraplegic character is crap? What if they notice that I only know, like, three story ideas for disabled characters?”

1. Bitter cripple drives away the people who love him.

2. Inspiring cripple teaches selfish non-cripple a valuable lesson about gratitude.

3. Cripple takes a chance on an experimental treatment and is cured.

On the other hand, I sometimes worry that casting disabled actors in disability roles can become too much of a “trick” in itself, when understood and promoted in a sensationalistic way. Not that disabled actors might do a poor job of it ... most disabled actors I’ve seen who have made it into mainstream productions are terrific ... but that viewers will pay more attention to the “wow factor” of casting a disabled person, than to the quality of their performance.

Of course, once you consider how most people feel today about white actors portraying African-American characters ... or a male actor playing a woman ... it's hard to escape the idea that it's pretty outrageous that most disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors. Here's a great article from that point of view at the website.

I wonder if I would feel differently about, say, Daniel Day-Lewis playing disabled Irish poet Christy Brown, if the situation were reversed ... if most disabled characters were, in fact, played by disabled actors, and non-disabled people playing them were the exception rather than the rule?

I’m sure a lot of these issues will come up, as I get into my Disability.TV podcast.

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