Is It Really A Travesty For Able-Bodied Actors To Play Roles Of Disabled Characters?


It seems as if there is a new political correctness that has come on the scene. Groups of people representing the cause of getting more acting jobs for disabled actors, are trying to make sure that no able-bodied actor ever works again by playing the part of a disabled character.

Some of these activists also believe that producers should audition disabled actors to play roles intended for non disabled actors. They say that just because the part wasn't written, for instance, for a person in a wheelchair, in many cases, a wheelchair bound actor could play the same part with minimal, or even no, reworking of the script required.

This is an interesting situation. On the one hand, they would evidently prefer to make it impossible for someone who is not handicapped physically to play the part of a person who is physically handicapped. On the other hand, at least some of these activists, would like to force producers to accept try outs by disabled actors for roles meant for non disabled performers.

They say that it is in the interest of fairness, but is it really fair? Some people claim that these activists are taking advantage of their own disabilities. (Yes, most of these activists are probably probably physically disabled themselves, including, of course, disabled actors. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and it just makes sense that would be the case.)

The people who disagree with the disabled activists must realize they are walking a thin line. It is easy to find people unlikeable when they come across as insensitive to others, less fortunate than themselves. For every person who publicly comes out and opposes the viewpoints of the disabled activists, there are probably quite a few more who will not offer their opinions publicly, for fear of harsh judgement.

In a recent exchange on a talk radio show in Los Angeles, a caller told the activist guest, the following: “Wait a second. So I'm supposed to never be allowed to audition for any role of a character with a disability, but you're supposed to be able to force your way into auditions for roles clearly not intended for disabled actors? In what world is that fair?”

The caller went on to say that life isn't fair. It's not fair that the guest is in a wheelchair and he (the caller) is not, but that is no excuse to force casting directors to limit the pool of talent from which they have to pick, or to force producers to have to deal with mandatory script and story revisions, set logistics and changes in the dynamics in the portrayed on screen relationships.

In this day and age of political correctness, it is impossible to truthfully deny the trend that the many are forced to deal with problems of the few. For instance, there are cases where one child has a peanut allergy that is potentially fatal, so the school lunch menu is changed to accommodate her. That may not seem so outlandish, but it goes further.

In some cases, notes are sent home to all parents telling them that if they make lunches for their kids, there can be no products with peanuts or peanut oil in them. Then, all lunches are inspected every day by teachers and foods suspected of having peanuts or peanut oil and thrown out.

In other cases, the right of parents to pack lunches for their children is done away with entirely. No child is allowed to bring their lunch for as long as the student with the peanut allergy is enrolled in the school.

It does seem like people with misfortune are allowed to abrogate the rights of people who do not share their fate. Simply broaching this topic lends one to criticism of insensitivity. Yet, it's a viable question to ask, how far should we go in accommodating the requests, and/or demands of disability activists?

Some people have used the American With Disabilities Act to force their employers to spend up to millions of dollars to try to accommodate their rare allergies, In one case, a new building was erected just to help a single worker be able to remain employed without having a runny nose.

Some of the disable actor activists would like their demands to be met with the help of the expansion of affirmative action laws. They would like an outright ban on any paid acting jobs going to able-bodied thespians for roles of disabled characters, as well as the quota on roles going to disabled actors that were not originally written for a character with a disability.

Others disagree with such legal maneuvering. They share in the same goals, but they want to accomplish it by educating producers, directors as well as the general public. They are waging a hearts and minds campaign, rather than one of legislation.

Within the activist community are some who are not seeking to force producers to put actors with disabilities into roles intended for able-bodied actors. However, they would love to see the day when more producers would be open to making such a move on their own volition. These activists are mostly concerned with making it socially scandalous for able-bodied actors to play the parts of characters who are not able-bodied.

In their opinion, it should be an embarrassment for that to happen at all, as opposed to way things are now, where it happens with regularity and it is not only not considered to be a scandal; it's often celebrated.

The actor often gets rave reviews for being, “believable,” in his faking of the disability. Sometimes that becomes the main barometer to judge the performance, almost to the exclusion of the usual parameters in which an acting performance is measured.

The term that is often used to describe an able-bodied actor who is cast in one of these roles is, disability drag. The inference is that it would be like putting a man in drag queen costume to fake the role of a woman.

Even if the guy in drag was able to fool some viewers into believing he is a she, that would not mean that his acting, in and of itself, is good, let alone great. Moreover, they say, if it became a trend, the way disability drag is a trend, it would be extremely unfair for actual actresses.

They stipulate that it would be like hiring white people and putting them in black face to portray black people. Even if you change cartoon-like black face with realistic make-up, their point is that it does not matter. Black actors would rightfully be incensed, and become activists to stop producers from hiring white people to take their roles.

There is already a lack of black roles as well as a dearth of disability roles for actors to begin with. It is said to add insult to injury to give those roles to actors who are not part of the groups they are portraying.

Perhaps the strongest, most eloquent voice for this cause is that of Scott Jordan Harris. Not a disabled actor, but a writer with the disability of M.E., (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) 1). It's a neurological disease that causes chronic fatigue and muscle pain.

You may find it hard, if not downright impossible, to disagree with him if you read a post by him regarding why he believes disabled parts are only right for disabled actors. He seems to fall into the category of an activist waging a hearts and minds campaign, and there does not seem to be anything he has published regarding forcing producers to hire, or even audition, disabled actors for roles of able-bodies characters.

The cause is certainly extremely well represented by Mr. Harris. If you read another post of his, talking about the effect of the disease upon his day to day life, your heart will likely go out to him, as well as your admiration. It would be interesting though to get his take on a production where the lead role centers around a person who has M.E. One of the main afflictions of M.E. is the inability to perform tasks for very long.

He is largely bedridden, has no regular sleeping pattern and does not have much time to get his editing, reviewing and writing done, because it takes a lot out of him to merely stay focused and awake. It would seem highly improbable for a production to stay on schedule if they had to work around such a disabled actor's schedule.

One has to wonder if he would rather see an disability drag actor in such a role, or to simply not have such a production made, if indeed, that was the only way it was going to be produced. It seems like it would do the world some good to learn about M.E., even if it would hurt, or even prevent, the career of an actor with the disease to not be considered for the part.

To read Mr. Harris' persuasive argument regarding the scandalous nature of disability drag, click here.

To read his description of a day in his life, go here.

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