Where are the disabled actors?

Published by The i Paper & The Independent (25th January, 2016)

A few months ago I was ploughing through the box set of the brilliant French thriller series Spiral. Much of the attention this dark drama series received focused on the strength of the main female character as she leads her team of police bruisers through the back streets of Paris. Yet there was something else that interested me about the show – and that was the moment when a computer expert played by an actor with dwarfism appeared.

For his condition was irrelevant to his character. He simply turns up, does his job analysing data and disappears again. I was struck by how rare it was to see on screen an actor with disabilities playing an ordinary person going about their daily business, despite the millions of disabled people for whom this is reality. Instead when such roles appear in film and television drama they tend to be used as symbols of tragedy or triumph over adversity – and all too often, played by actors without disabilities.

Remember this amid the eruption of anger over Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Few people will share Charlotte Rampling’s bizarre view that the Oscar boycott is ‘racism to white people’ after a failure to nominate black or minority actors for the top awards again. There are valid concerns over institutional bias – although talk of a snub for the awful vanity film Straight Outta Compton is absurd. And it is hard not to smirk when Mark Ruffalo, favourite for best supporting actor for his role in ‘Spotlight’, insists he is only attending to support victims of ‘clergy sexual abuse’.

There are profound issues to address when minorities account for almost 40 per cent of the United States population but win barely one in 20 lead roles on television. This matters because mainstream media is such an influential part of our culture – reflecting concerns, reinforcing stereotypes and shaping debates. What message does it send to young viewers when the black guy is always the best friend rather than the romantic lead or superhero? Especially at a time when black people are having to assert their lives matter.

But where were the protests last year when Eddie Redmayne stepped up to collect an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’? Sadly, few people – let alone all those stars speaking out angrily on diversity – seem bothered by the dearth of actors with disabilities permitted to be seen on screen. The idea of an actor blacking up would rightly cause outrage these days, yet one study found 16 per cent of best actor Oscars awarded for portrayals of disability or mental illness. Think of Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Geoffrey Rush, even Tom Hanks in ‘Forrest Gump’.

When I grew up one of the most popular television shows was ‘Ironside’, starring able-bodied Raymond Burr as a homicide detective left in a wheelchair after a shooting; it was recently remade starring, ironically, an African-American actor without disabilities. And note how Cheryl Boone Isaacs, head of the Oscars, says the Academy is reviewing its membership since today’s mandate is about inclusion – which she defines as ‘gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.’ Once again, people with disabilities are excluded from the diversity discussion despite being the most marginalised minority group.

The playwright Christopher Shinn believes audiences are reassured when actors playing disabled characters walk up to collect awards since it shows ‘society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.’ He confesses to not being bothered about such issues until having a leg amputated aged 38; now he knows the deep challenges of disability, along with the insensitivities of so many daily encounters. ‘Perhaps the worst feeling is when people avert their eyes. Even someone gawking is better.’

It is no better on British screens. Almost one in five people have some form of disability according to official figures, but last year the BBC disclosed they account for just 1.2 per cent of those appearing on television in any guise. This is appalling from a state broadcaster – although it is not just about actors and presenters, but wider attitudes. Julie Fernandez, best-known for appearing in The Office, tells of being rejected for a role as a secretary sitting behind a desk ‘because they hadn’t written it as a part for a wheelchair-bound secretary.’

Things are changing, albeit far too slowly. The BBC has pledged to quadruple the number of disabled people on screen by next year, while Channel 4 wants at least one main character in every drama coming from a minority. It was great to see an actor with cerebral palsy play a key role in Breaking Bad, while another with Down’s Syndrome joined the Coronation Street cast. Sadly, these examples stand out because they remain all too rare.

In the real world disabled people are bullied and beaten, shut out of workplaces, unable to access public transport and trapped in poverty. Such is the ostracism that two-thirds of Britons admit feeling uncomfortable just talking to a person with disabilities, almost half do not know anyone disabled and one-third think them less productive. Prejudice will not end with a few bit parts in films and soap opera. But film and television can play a role breaking down bigotry, helping to bring a segment of society in from the shadows and giving hope to the next generation. For now, sadly, Hollywood’s talk of diversity seems to be just an act.

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