There are 54 million people living with disabilities in the United States, and I’m one of them. We’re one of the largest and fastest growing minority groups in America, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from what you see on the stage and screen.
I'm an actor, and a key question for me is how people with disabilities are portrayed in the performing arts. How many characters have disabilities? And did actors with disabilities get the chance to audition for the roles?
For example, were actors who use wheelchairs auditioned for the role of Artie in Glee, or were actors who are blind or deaf auditioned for the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker? Too often, accommodations, sign-language interpreters or even just ramps to the stage are seen as difficult, and not worth the effort or expense. But think about it in terms of other minority groups. Would you cast a white actor to perform the role of a person of color?
And the roles themselves are often limited. It seems to me that there are certain “types” of people with disabilities in the media. Either we’re dependent victims, the sweet “Tiny Tim” sort of character; or we’re heroic, the plucky character who overcomes his disability like Forrest Gump; or we’re villains, such as Captain Hook.
People with disabilities are people, which means they have a variety of experiences, and there should be a variety of representations in the arts and in media.
Walking into an audition is a nerve-wracking experience, especially if, like me, you happen to have cerebral palsy, which affects your walk. It’s usually the first thing directors notice, and it’s my job to convince them that my disability will not limit my performance.
As stressful as it can be, acting has been my saving grace when I was a child, undergoing multiple, painful surgeries, it was theater that provided an outlet for me, a positive, creative way to express myself. And now, as an adult, it’s theater that’s creating opportunities for me to earn a living, share my story, and help change society. In my work, I’ve learned that my disability can be an asset to me as a performer, rather than a liability.
Talking about disabilities honestly and openly can be intimidating; people don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they often don’t say anything at all. They just stick with what they feel comfortable with. But having a diversity of experiences makes us stronger, both as individuals and as a society. That’s why it’s so important to include everyone in the arts.
There's a saying in the disability and other minority communities: "Nothing about us without us."
Everyone deserves the opportunity to share their stories and to represent themselves.
[i] Americans with Disabilities: 2005 report, U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb10-ff13.html