actors with disabilities

Actors With Disabilities – Does Hollywood Have a Problem with Disabilities?

“It seems that Hollywood’s exclusion of actors with disabilities is so entrenched that it not only doesn’t draw public censure, but it doesn’t even warrant lip service.” – Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation

The film and entertainment industry has failed the disabilities community for too long. Few plot lines contain characters with disabilities and those that do often exploit disability as inspirational or less than human. On top of that, when there are characters with disabilities, actors with disabilities rarely play them. As a result, the industry excludes actors with disabilities and misunderstands the community.

It’s a shame considering the entertainment industry’s efforts to improve its diversity the past few years. And it’s harmful because TV and film have a strong influencing effect on shaping perception. The disabilities community struggles enough with how people understand them.

Jay Ruderman – President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading disabilities advocacy organization – wrote a fascinating article for Boston Magazine where he discussed the lack of actors with disabilities in Hollywood.

Ruderman illustrates how Hollywood perpetuates ableism through its love for movies about people with disabilities. He cites examples such as Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, based on Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman’s book, as examples of actors without disabilities that play a person with disabilities.

Quoting an article in the Atlantic by playwright Christopher Shinn, Ruderman captures the root of Hollywood’s problem with disabilities.

“[i]t is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective “Phew” as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.”

Don’t believe Ruderman? Do a simple “disabilities Hollywood” Google search.  You’ll come up with enough links discussing Hollywood’s problem with disabilities to keep you busy for an afternoon.

Making Strides

Changing the way the entertainment industry uses disability and increasing opportunities for actors with disabilities is possible. One needs to look no further than ABC’s hit TV show Speechless, as a perfect example. The show revolves around the DiMeo family – a family of five. Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, plays J.J., the oldest son, who also has cerebral palsy. The show received praise for tackling ableism, showing disability in a positive and accurate light, and for using a disabled actor to play a disabled character.

Speechless’ success inside and out of the disabilities community is a stellar example of how Hollywood should change the way it uses disability in plot lines, disabled characters, and actors with disabilities.

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Josh Appel
jappel@disabledspectator.com
6 Comments
  • Tatiana Lee
    Posted at 16:31h, 05 July Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. It is a topic that needs to be discussed more and more until something changes. I am an actor with a disability ( Spina Bifida) and I decided to tackle this industry because I didn’t see myself represented in society at large, especially growing up as a black woman with a disability. I felt this was very wrong. I wanted others like myself to be seen in a positive light, loving life like so many of us do. It would change people’s perception of us and maybe even help a lot of others feel comfortable in their own skin because the media portrayes us in ways that make the rest of the world feel sorry for us and that makes me so mad. The most furious I’ve ever gotten was watching “Me Before You” that was horrible that he felt he should kill his self due to his newly disabled body from an accident. It actually ended with him killing himself because he felt less of a man! Is that the message we want to send? No! We want the message of, life is still possible if you have an injury or even born with one such as myself. I love the show Speechless and it’s done very well. We are off to a great start but more needs to be done. I’m continuing my training in acting and putting myself out there as much as possible. I’m ready for this amazing transformation of TV & Film and let’s start telling real stories about the struggle of disability

    • Josh Appel
      Posted at 18:39h, 11 July Reply

      We’re glad this article resonated with you, thanks for reading! We’re always open to sharing stories about people on our blog and if you ever want to write a piece about your story, experiences you’ve had in your acting career or with accessibility/disability feel free to contact us.

    • Margot
      Posted at 06:32h, 25 July Reply

      I despise “Me Before You”. Agree!

  • Margot
    Posted at 06:30h, 25 July Reply

    Hi, I make independent grassroots films about people with disabilities on youtube for the exact reasons you mention here! I have Cerebral Palsy and wanted to see my vibrant life as a disabled woman reflected back to me. Unfortunately Hollywood seems to think disabled people are all depressed, angry and want to be dead(“Me Before You” is a prime example of as I term it “culture of death”). I wanted to change this so I did the work myself by writing directing, and producing, myself and casted disabled actors in all of the disabled roles which are usually the lead roles in my films. I feel disabled actors need way more exposer since most other film makers I meet are unaware disabled actors even exist. My completed films are titled “Drama Sighted” “Only Those Who Limp Allowed” and “Crips Not Creeps” which can be found on my website here http://cripvideoproductions.com or on youtube by searching for them in the youtube search engine. Please check out my films! We are in production with our newest film “A Stroke Of Endurance” now which we hope will be uploaded by November. Updates on the production of “A Stroke Of Endurance” are on our tumblr blog http://cripvideoproductions.tumblr.com Ironically in “A Stroke Of Endurance” we have some disabled actors playing able bodied roles as well. If you would like me to write about my disability film making experiences for this blog I would love to!!! How do I contact you???

    • Josh Appel
      Posted at 22:03h, 25 July Reply

      Hi Margot! We’re always looking for people to share their experiences and stories, and I think it would be really interesting to have some of your disability filmmaking experiences on this blog. Send me an email at hello@disabledspectator.com and we can talk about the details. Looking forward to hearing from you!

      • Margot
        Posted at 03:16h, 26 July Reply

        Hi Josh, I just sent you an email with the subject “Margot of Crip Video Productions, my writing” Let me know if it went through?

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