Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor

The entertainment industry loves disabled characters—but not disabled actors.
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.

Presented by

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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