Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor

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Able-bodied actors playing disabled characters like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot may reassure audiences, but undercuts the power of stories about disability.

“Freaks” are having a moment.

The Kennedy Center's acclaimed production of Side Show, about conjoined sisters at the circus, is rumored to be mulling a move to Broadway. The next season of American Horror Story will, similarly, be about a freak show. And in recent months there has been a proliferation of representations of disability on stage and screen. Consider just the most popular:

  • The heartthrob amputee (Ansel Elgort) at the center of a teenage love story in the smash movie The Fault in Our Stars
  • The correctional officer with an amputation (Matt McGorry) in love with a prisoner in the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black
  • A woman with a disfiguring facial scar (Sutton Foster) on a journey to be healed in the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Violet
  • The Cripple of Inishman (Daniel Radcliffe) in the acclaimed Broadway play of the same name

What do all these characters have in common? They are played by actors who are not disabled in real life.

It’s not hard to understand why: Financial realities necessitate stars in leading roles, and there aren't many disabled actors who are big box-office draws. But even allowing that fact, something strange is going on. The entertainment world keeps producing stories about disabled people, yet almost never casts disabled performers at all—whether in major or minor roles, playing disabled or able-bodied characters. Counterexamples, like RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad or Jamie Brewer in the first and third seasons of American Horror Story, are rare.

We are not witnessing the actual pain and struggle of real disabled human beings; it is all make believe.

According to advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, 2200 actors are self-identified as persons with disabilities with Actors Access, a well-known national casting service. Without many opportunities, these performers often find it hard to build the resumes that will get them steady work. "Playing disability is a considered a technical skill for an actor, and casting directors and producers prefer to seek non-disabled actors with long track records," says Howard Sherman, director of the Alliance. But as disabled performers become more vocal, there is hope they'll become more visible too.

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