Disability in Film


As it is Oscar Sunday, I figured a pop culture focused disability positive blog was in order. Given that one of the year’s Best Picture nominees has disability as one of its central themes, I decided that a brief monologue on the ‘disabled actor’ conundrum was fitting for the day.  Simply put, the debate concerns whether non-disabled actors should assume roles of disabled characters. This has been common practice in the film and television industry for years; Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot”, Jamie Fox in “Ray” and Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” just to name a few. This year, it is Eddie Redmayne taking on a disability in his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Stephen Hawking. And so the debate has been sparked yet again.

Let me be upfront about something. I think Redmayne’s depiction of Dr. Hawking is fantastic and I think he deserves every accolade he has received and will receive for it. I thought his portrayal of disability was brilliant, nuanced and as honest as it could be. I also don’t have the slightest issue, as a disability activist, with him taking the spot in the wheelchair. There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, Hawking has lived so much longer than expected with ALS that the number of actors with a similar disability experience is likely very small. Secondly though, and more importantly, the movie documents Hawking’s progression with the condition, beginning before symptoms manifested themselves. And, like it or not, it is far easier to ‘act out’ ALS than it would be to ‘act out’ a non-disabled bodies.

Unlike some people I know, my convictions in this debate are not unshakable. Indeed, one of my favourite narratives of disability in film, “Rory O’Shea Was Here”, employs two non-disabled actors (James McAvoy and Steven Robertson) as the two main characters, both of whom have significant disabilities. I don’t have a huge issue with this. But I do think that the film industry needs to take a serious look at why they are so willing to override the lived experience of disability in favour of a more suitable actor.

Some have said that actors with disabilities may struggle in the highly competitive world of film and TV. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who has an Oscar and a decades-long show business  career to her name, is proof that this argument does not hold weight. Others have suggested that actors with disabilities would be limited in what they could do on screen (see Glee’s Kevin Mchale’s dancing dream sequence). But that excuse just rings of unimaginative storytelling. The fact is that if, in 2015, African American characters were being given to Caucasian actors without that lived experience, you can bet there would be an outcry. The film and television industries need to be less willing to lean on their excuses with regards to disability.

So I propose a change in the dialogue. Instead of saying ‘non-disabled actors should never again fake a disability on screen’ let’s ask a question. How can we bring a more disability approach to the industry? How can we create more opportunities for actors and crewmembers with disabilities? How can we create an environment where those green-lighting projects see disability as an asset rather than an annoyance? I don’t have an answer, but I do firmly believe that the positive, celebratory approach of the disability perspective will be far more palatable to Hollywood big wigs than the more righteous alternative.

So…to all you film and TV buffs out there, have a great disability positive Oscar night!