Written By: ANDREW ZERMAN
The United States Census Bureau released data in 2016 stating that twenty percent of Americans had at least one disability. An analysis of the 100 highest grossing films that same year found that just 2.5 percent of characters with a speaking part had a disability. And on the seldom occasion that Hollywood includes a character with a disability, a whopping ninety-five percent of those roles go to people without disabilities. This just adds to a list of the ills that Hollywood has had with underrepresentation. A good first step to making Hollywood more ability inclusive would be to have people with disabilities playing characters with disabilities.
One may ask why disability representation is important in the first place. The presence (or absence) of such characters in entertainment has historically been a determinant of how society perceives a demographic. For example, LGBT characters did not start sprouting up in films until the last decade. This absence reflected a society in which the majority accepted being heterosexual and cisgender as the only right ways of being. Likewise, having a disability has historically been viewed as an inferiority and that has reflected in film with the lack of characters and actors with disabilities.
The typical casting method has been to give the role to the best actor, regardless of identity. This is usually reasonable. But when only 2.5 percent of roles are created for actors with disabilities and 97.5 are created for those without, this method could easily lead to the exclusion of an already small number of disabled actors. Actors without disabilities already have a large net of potential roles to play. For many with disabilities, that role may be their only opportunity. There are also no promises that casting directors will not have biases against actual people with disabilities, regardless of the identity of the character. It is not up to them to choose the specifics of the characters.
The notion that a disabled actor would have an inferior performance to a non-disabled actor solely because of their differing ability is rooted in ableism. Actress Millicent Simmonds played a supporting role in A Quiet Place, a 2018 horror film. She was deaf just like the character that she was playing. Her performance earned critical reception by both audiences and critics alike. There are other such instances of this, and the number would undoubtedly be even greater if disability casting were more prominent.
You also have to get to the root of the problem in order to best solve it, and it is simply that Hollywood is not sending good messages about disabilities. Among that small sliver of examples of disabled characters played by disabled actors, there exists problems with how the characters are portrayed and written;that is a whole other discussion. It is important to acknowledge the fact that having a disability is essentially a part of the human experience, as everyone who lives a long enough life will be bound to have one. The further inclusion of disabled actors will not be a cure all for prejudice and misunderstanding, but it will be a good first step to making a more inclusive world for all.