Adapting to the Ordinary // Nothing About Us Without Us

 Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

Underrepresentation in Hollywood is a hot topic these days and increasingly so as we enter Awards Season. Racial representation usually takes center stage, but we are now at a point in the disability rights movement where ability and how it is portrayed also matters.

Think of the ways disability is shown in movies. Are you reminded of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in My Left Foot? What about Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray? Or how about Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man? Or more recently, Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything?

But here is what is so problematic with able-bodied actors playing people with disabilities: it’s exploitative mockery, inauthentic, and downright discriminatory.

These roles were all played by able-bodied actors; AND they all won Academy Awards for their portrayal. In researching for this article I found over 20 able-bodied actors who played a person with a disability and they either won an Oscar for their performance or earned a nomination. Let’s face it: Hollywood loves a character that faces adversity. In fact, there’s a saying in the industry that the fastest track to an Oscar is to play someone with a disability.

But here is what is so problematic with able-bodied actors playing people with disabilities: it’s exploitative mockery, inauthentic, and downright discriminatory.

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, an organization that advocates for inclusion for people with disabilities in all aspects of society, only 2% of TV roles are characters with disabilities, and of those roles, 95% of them are played by an able-bodied actor. With 20% of the world population identifying as a person with a disability, our stories and experiences aren’t being told enough to reflect our prominence, and when they are, they are most often told by able-bodied writers and portrayed by a non-disabled actor. It is history repeating itself. In the time of
Shakespeare, men played the female roles. In the 19th and 20th century, African American stories were told by white actors in blackface. Minstrel shows have become a thing of the past for a reason: they are offensive.

So why does the same outrage not happen for the disability community?

FEAR

We have a right to say how our lives are perceived and portrayed in media. And every time an able-bodied actor masquerades as one of us, we are denied that right.

Fear of becoming disabled is an underlying theme in every image of disability we see or hear about. It’s the only minority you can join in an instant. Newspapers, novels, the small and silver screen exploit this idea to the fullest extent. Our stories are either tragic or triumphant, with both types spreading negative, pitiful and dare I say, inspirational messages about life with disability. But this is simply not the reality for most of us. We live life on our own terms and tackle daily challenges just like our able-bodied peers. So it is particularly infuriating when Hollywood
euthanizes one of us, because “our lives are not worth living.”

I’m all for full body autonomy but when so many interpretations of my life end in assisted suicide I must side with the disability community. Movies like Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby are damaging to society’s view of life with a disability, as they celebrate death rather than embracing life.

Million Dollar Baby is particularly damaging as it’s director and co-star, Clint Eastwood, famously testified in front of Congress in 2000, in protest of having to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act on his Mission Ranch hotel in California. Eastwood believes the disabled are used by lawyers to get rich quick by filing frivolous lawsuits against small businesses for “minor ADA violations.”

Eighteen years later, we are still having the same damn conversation on “frivolous ADA lawsuits” as Congress debates the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would give businesses even more time than the nearly 28 years they’ve already had to comply with the law. Frivolous ADA lawsuits are a fallacy. Media representation clearly matters.

Just five years after Eastwood’s Congressional testimony he was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director and was nominated for Best Actor for Million Dollar Baby, a story of a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank, turned quadriplegic that wants to die. Eastwood kills her in an act of “mercy.” Swank also wins an Oscar for her role in the acclaimed film. Hollywood awards Eastwood, an ableist in real life, who directs and stars in a movie that celebrates killing a person (played by an able-bodied actress) with a disability.

 Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Moving Forward

Just last week the Oscar nominations were announced. Wonder, a film featuring a boy with a genetic craniofacial condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome, is nominated in the Hair and Makeup category. While it is great that Hollywood produced a film about a boy with a craniofacial condition, the actor who plays Auggie Pullman does not actual have said condition and underwent 90 minutes of intense and uncomfortable makeup and prosthetics to become the character. The make-up artist, Arjen Tuiten, even used special contact lenses to make Auggie look
“cuter.” And now Mr. Tuiten is being nominated for his feat.

I am furious.

The producers of this film really missed an opportunity to cast a child with a craniofacial condition. I can’t give them a pass even when they said they did consider it. People with disabilities want to see themselves in mainstream media. Disability is not a costume you can wear and just take off when you feel like it. Even Tuiten himself explained the challenge of emulating Treacher Collins Syndrome, “you can only do so much physically with makeup.” And maybe that’s the answer: makeup shouldn’t be used at all. Use a real actor with the condition.

We have a right to say how our lives are perceived and portrayed in media. And every time an able-bodied actor masquerades as one of us, we are denied that right. There is a phrase that has worldwide usage by disability rights activists, “nothing about us without us.” Indeed, it is critical that we continue to criticize an industry that thrives and exploits the exclusion of people who are different. Disability needs to be part of the conversation.


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REBECCA ANGER

Rebecca Anger is a disabled social activist and an aspiring attorney in Chicago, focusing on health and civil rights law. When she is not fighting injustice, she likes to cook and create new recipes and spend time with her husband.  

Find Rebecca on Instagram @reebs8416