More popular media and theatrical plays are being released than ever before. Because of the escapism involved in immersing our lives into the worlds of others, the entertainment industry provides us all with much needed breaks from reality. However, not all media consumption is created with pure entertainment in mind. Many popular shows, movies, and plays challenge our perception and push us to see the world in new ways. For stories that involve marginalized characters, this gives viewers insight into lived experiences they may not be exposed to otherwise. When it comes to stories that center disabled characters, audiences are given the opportunity to learn more about what the struggles and success of the disabled community look like. But, when the roles of disabled characters are given to able-bodied actors a contentious conversation emerges.

Casting Able-bodied Actors

Entertainment outlets are quickly becoming more and more diverse, but historically the largest amount of roles cast are by played by actors who may not fit the diverse nature of the worlds being portrayed. If most actors are able-bodied, then it becomes likely that disabled roles will be given to people who do not live with them. So, where does this leave disabled actors? Most directors do not cast disabled actors to play roles that aren’t written as disabled. While some media is becoming more diverse, there are still far from as many disabled roles available than able-bodied ones. If able-bodied actors are being given disabled roles, and disabled people aren’t being given roles that aren’t specified as disabled, a huge blind spot is created where disabled actors are left waiting in the wings. The conversation this creates has two sides, but most disabled actors would prefer to see disabled roles being cast with people who may not have a choice otherwise as to the kinds of characters they get to play.

Being given the chance to play a character that is very removed from your own experience can feel like the opportunity of a lifetime for some actors. It gives them the chance to step full outside the scope of their lives and push their talents to new places. But, if disabled actors are not being given the same treatment, then able-bodied actors may be taking advantage of the “opportunity” to play a disabled role. In an article in the New York Times, Howard Sherman of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts says, “Playing someone with a disability should not be considered a talent or skill for nondisabled actors. It should be considered taking a job away from someone with the unique life experiences to portray that role.”

With these kinds of roles frequently considered Oscar worthy (or Tony worthy, as the case could be), it places an unfair burden on the backs of the disabled community to be thankful that their stories are being shown without actually allowing a member of their community to benefit from the task. Francis Ryan of the The Guardian compares the use of able-bodied actors in disabled roles to the historic use of blackface in American media, where white actors would frequently don dark makeup and take on the roles of African American characters. She believes the casting of abled-bodied actors in disabled roles should be considered equally offensive: “While “blacking up” is rightly now greeted with outrage, “cripping up” is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry.”

Judging from media criticism it seems high time that more disabled actors should be able to represent themselves in our entertainment outlets. Everyone loves stories about overcoming adversity, but when the real lived experiences of disabled people are treated as symbolic rather than fact, it is as easy for audience members to forget about disabled advocacy as it is for able-bodied actors to stand up out of their wheelchairs at the end of a performance.

Increased Disabled Casting

The Broadway stage has just recently seen its first actor who needed a wheelchair appear in a show. Last year, Ali Stroker was cast in the role of Anna in Deaf West’s revival of the popular musical Spring Awakening. She also competed on The Glee Project and was awarded a guest role on the show. The show previously featured a main character in a chair who did not require it in his life off of the show, so the casting of Stroker was a major move for disability representation on television. Along with Stroker, Glee has actually seen other disabled actors playing roles suited to their experience.

Lauren Potter, known for her tenacious performance of Becky on Glee, is an actress living with Down syndrome. Since appearing as a performer on the show, she also has spread her talents into the world of producing, as well. Potter has taken her performance in a popular show to create a platform for disabled advocacy. Not only did she appear opposite Jane Lynch in TV commercials encouraging audiences to curb their use of the “r-slur,” she also works with organizations such as AbilityPath, Best Buddies International, the Down Syndrome Association, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and Special Olympics. Potter shows audiences just what positive representation of the disabled community can lead to. Not many able-bodied actors have devoted their whole lives to disabled advocacy once they take their costumes off.

Integrative Companies to Follow

With many able-bodied roles being given to only able-bodied actors, there are some theatre companies that are working to be more integrative in their casting choices. One example is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Their mission statement includes inclusion policies geared toward integrating more socio-economic, age, disability, and racial and ethnic diversity. Theatre Breaking Through Barriers is another company to keep up with. TBTB is the only off-Broadway company that can tout remaining “dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities and changing the image of people with disabilities from dependence to independence,” as a part of their mission. These are just two examples, but with more advocacy and allyship from nondisabled people, we may soon see an increase in the amount of roles, disabled or not, being filled with non-normatively abled actors.


Photo credit: Ana Karenina / CC 2.0