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The Complicated Portrayal of Disabilities in Hollywood

An opinion piece written by Lauren Aycock

For the longest time, Hollywood avoided introducing disabled characters into their works. Similarly, disabled actors were rarely cast. In recent years, however, there has been a push for more diversity and authentic representation of all walks of life. For many groups, the bulk of this long-existing inequality can be tackled with a few tweaks on the production end. By writing scripts with a range of diverse characters, then following through with the appropriate casting choices, it seems that huge improvements resulted. 

Simple as it may seem, the disabled community presents an entirely new set of obstacles when fighting for media representation.

First and foremost, all people, disabled or not, are must be viewed as people, rather than a personified disability. On and off-screen, it must be made clear that while an individual may have a disability, they are not confined to that narrative. In the same way that traditional characters are given backstories, personalities, and hobbies, we owe it to the disabled community to give them representation with that same level of depth. 

Let’s take a look at several approaches taken from Glee, specifically Lauren Potter’s character, “Becky”, and Kevin McHale’s character, “Artie”. I would like to give credit to the Glee production team for being one of the earlier shows to write in not one, but two recurring rolls with disabilities. However, I would also like to take a moment to question their motives. Major props for casting Potter, but why was the role of Artie given to an able-bodied individual? This type of inconsistency leads me to believe that these choices were not founded in inclusivity, but rather made out of convenience. It makes the most sense to have a character with Down syndrome played by an individual with Down syndrome due to the complex nature of the condition, which also has an effect on appearance. But what about the many conditions that present more discreet symptoms? It seems that the film industry has decided it is far easier to cast unaffected actors to portray disabilities that can be easily mimicked. Artie is a perfect example of this phenomenon. McHale has no trouble walking, but his fictional counterpart was bound to a wheelchair for the bulk of the show’s 6 season air time. This role could have been given to an actor who was truly wheelchair-bound and may have struggled to land other parts. 

It’s unfair to lump all disabilities into the same category- even people with the same conditions can present drastically different symptoms. This being said, the approach to representation will be very individualized, but it can be done with the right accommodations. Factors to consider when hiring people with disabilities -health risks, to rigorous for some conditions-stress could worsen conditions, certain physical restrictions, possible mental restrictions- struggle to memorize, apply notes, etc. They know the disability best and will be able to portray that aspect without any extensive prep. Directors must be willing to let some actors just “be”, and interact with others as they normally would, rather than follow a (likely biased) script.  

No doubt, Hollywood has come a long way in showing us the full scope of our people, but they still have a long way to go.

Ask yourself or your peers these debatable questions to spark healthy conversations:

How could supporting roles for people with disabilities be better written?

What accommodations could be made on the production end to create a safer and desirable workplace for disabled actors and actresses?

How does extensive research effect authentic character development?

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