Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor

The entertainment industry loves disabled characters—but not disabled actors.
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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. (Miramax Films)

“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.

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.     

As a playwright who underwent a below-the-knee amputation at age 38 during treatment for Ewing's sarcoma, I have lived as both an able-bodied and disabled person and artist. I understand that casting entails more than a search for diversity. But I’ve also come to believe that leaving out actual disabled people undercuts the power of works ostensibly about disability.

The late, disabled playwright John Belluso had a theory about why actors who play disabled characters often win Oscars: It is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective "Phew" as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.

This same logic can be applied to any representation of disability by an able-bodied actor. A lot of teenagers going to see The Fault In Our Stars already knows Ansel Elgort has two full legs. Broadway audiences know from having seen them previously that Sutton Foster bears no facial scarring and Daniel Radcliffe has no physical limitations. It is obvious the conjoined sisters in Side Show are two fully separate women, and even the convincing CGI amputation in Orange Is the New Black strikes our eye in a slightly false way.

This is not incidental but central to the success of these representations. They provide us with the comforting assurance that we are not witnessing the actual pain and struggle of real disabled human beings; it is all make believe.

Able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can't draw on their direct experience. That means that audiences will be able to "enjoy" them without really confronting disability's deepest implications for human life.

Often, one fears, that’s the point: Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.  For example, in his review of Side Show, New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote, "Of course, in some sense, we all know what it’s like to feel self-divided, or alienated from the world, which is what makes 'Side Show' emotionally stirring." Disabled characters are often seen as symbolizing the triumph of the human spirit, or the freakishness we all feel inside. That may be another reason disabled actors are overlooked—they don't allow disability-as-metaphor to flourish as easily. 

I may not have been much bothered by any of this until my own disability asserted itself. But now I know that the physical pain and challenges that come in the wake of disability, alongside the insensitivity and lack of understanding one encounters, are profound experiences that cannot be truly known until they are endured. Perhaps the worst feeling is when people avert their eyes. Even someone gawking is better than their looking away. 

But the exclusion of disabled performers allows people to simultaneously gawk and look away. The actor walking on stage to receive an award for playing a man who can't walk, the physically robust PR photo-ops of the actor portraying a disabled character, the curtain call where the actor sheds her disability for our applause—they enable the lie of representation. The real freaks are somewhere else, still waiting for their own show.

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Christopher Shinn

Christopher Shinn is the head of playwriting at the New School for Drama. His most recent play is Teddy Ferrara, and his Dying City was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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