03 Jul 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.
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.