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The future isn't accessible: The film industry's problem with real disabled representation


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“If you are never to see yourself depicted…You believe no other like you ever existed. You begin to wonder if you even exist.”
-Marguerite Bennett

To have representation on the silver screen is to be validated that you exist and matter. That your voice is heard. It’s taken Hollywood and the wider film industry its whole first century to begin tackling this in regards to race, gender, and sexuality. When it comes to disability however, the industry thinks representation in casting and characters doesn’t matter.

As someone with multiple disabilities, I’m used to not seeing characters like myself on screen. As someone on the autistic spectrum I see my condition regularly depicted, but terribly, by non-disabled actors.

The latest case of a disabled role going to an able-bodied person is the potrayal of Joseph Merrick for a BBC drama about the Elephant Man’s life. The BBC’s media centre gushed about how Charlie Heaton (from Stranger Things fame) will portray Joseph’s “journey”. BBC Drama’s Piers Wenger said that “Heaton promises to be extraordinary” in this “powerful, resonant story”. Heaton himself stated the role was a “challenge for any actor”.

An actually powerful, resonant story would have cast a disabled man. The terminology used by those involved highlights fundamental flaws with able-bodied and neutrotypical casting for disabled roles. The life of the disabled Joseph is a 'challenge'. Something that can get Heaton and the production praise and awards for being “brave” enough to portray Merrick. Heaton can “challenge” himself then take off the Elephant Man’s face at the end of the day. The production doesn’t care about representation. It cares about rewards.

On a positive note, the drama is being scrutinized more than previous casting choices. The disabled charity, Scope, expressed their disappointment, but the BBC response was a repeat of every film called out for bad representation…It’s okay as disabled actors will feature in “key” roles.

Phil Talbot, Scope’s head of Communications, said it was a “missed opportunity” as The Elephant Man features one of cinema’s most recognizable depictions of disability. “Sadly, a lack of diversity in the industry is nothing new” he concluded.

This production is just one in a long line of failed opportunities. This year’s Skyscraper and last year’s Wonder and The Shape of Water are just further examples.

Studies into representation shed light on the problems. Films continue to delight in locating people’s disabilities within a medical theory of disability, despite its fall from favour since the 1970s. Impairment in film is “the most important thing”, and works to objectify and distance disabled characters from audiences, disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare notes. Thus stereotypes continue to persist.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have been studying the flaws in film representation. This year they published a report on representation of gender, sexuality, race and disability from 2007-2017. They found that only 2.4% of speaking roles were for disabled characters in 2015, this only increasing to 2.5% by 2017.

41 films in 2017 had no disabled characters, fourteen had a lead or co-lead disabled character, but were overwhelmingly male and only two films had disabled characters who were also from another marginalised community.

Of this 2.5%, 61.6% had physical conditions, 26.8% mental and 30.4% communication disabilities. Physical disabilities more easily can fit Hollywood narratives of overcoming ordeals. The 26.8% shows their discomfort with tackling the stories of people with learning and cognitive difficulties. Male disabled characters outnumber female disabled characters at 69.6% against 30.4%. Finally the 2.5% is vastly at odds, the study argues, with the 18.7% of US citizens who are disabled.

The report does not go into the casting of these few disabled characters. Film School Reject’s Sophia Stewart sums up the problem with the Oscars and film industry: both “love films about disability, not disabled actors”. The only two individuals with disabilities that have been awarded an Oscar for acting have been Harold Russell and Marlee Martin. 

The film industry seems to not received the message that The Future Is Accessible. They better hurry up.

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