First published in 2017
While social justice issues such as gender, racial and most recently sexuality equality are well established conversations in Australian society, the discussion around disabled rights is significantly less developed.
Significant progress has certainly been made from the days when the disabled were considered lost causes, or even targets for racial ‘cleansing’. Public awareness has advanced to the point where most are aware that people suffering from disabilities are simply people living with a condition, and deserve to have their particular needs respected and addressed.
However, the national understanding of the issue remains rather simplistic, meaning that we struggle to discuss more nuanced question when they arise; questions such as how disabilities should be portrayed on film and stage.
Intellectually disability has long been a powerful trope for writers and directors seeking pathos or drama in their productions. Films such as Forest Gump and Rain Man achieved wide success from the concept. However, in virtually every instance one factor remains constant – the disabled are cast as able-bodied actors rather than actors with the disabilities being portrayed. Many in the disabled community have come to describe this practice as ‘cripping-up’.
On the face of it this may seem a simple necessity; intellectual disabilities by their very nature tend to decrease an individual’s ability to participate in something as complex, intense and long-winded as the production of a film or stage play. Surely attempting to cast an actor with the disability being portrayed would practical impossible to manage, not to mention the relative scarcity of such actors?
However, this response demonstrates the immaturity of the conversation about disabled rights, making broad assumptions about a diverse range of individuals with varying severity of conditions. While the general logic of the statement may seem sound, it ignores the fact that there are numerous disabled actors active already, such as the professional company Back to Back based in Geelong. Surely if a director was seeking an actor to play a disabled character, their first port of call should be companies like this?
But this in turn raises the spectre of affirmative action and the accusation that such practices prioritise an individual’s nature over their actual merit to complete the job – disabled actors may indeed exist, but if an able-bodied person is better able to portray the character, then surely it would be condescending to give it to the disabled actors purely because of their condition?
Quite apart from the subjectivity surrounding whether an actor plays a part ‘better’ than another, consider if we were to run that scenario through other social debates; casting a white person as a black character for example.
If any director was to attempt this they would correctly be accused of conducting black-face – the disempowerment of a historically persecuted minority, by a powerful majority which could never hope to understand the suffering circumstance and society has imposed upon them. A description which also happens to perfectly fit the disabled community.
This is not to suggest that the portrayals of the disabled by able-bodied actors have always been demeaning, in fact films like Forrest Gump in particular tend to show it as a pseudo-superpower. However, if we are to continue the progress achieved on topics such as race, gender and sexuality, the national conversation about justice for the disabled must mature beyond the simple avoidance of direct harm, and instead address the question of empowerment. And one very significant step towards this would be giving disabled people control over the way in which they are portrayed in the public eye.