Disabled Actors Can't Get Cast as Disabled Characters

click to enlarge Ana Jennings with DP director Joan Lipkin. - Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Ana Jennings with DP director Joan Lipkin.
"If I was able to break into entertainment, I'd change people's attitudes," says Ana Jennings, an actress in the DisAbility Project, the subject of this week's RFT feature story. "I'm a pretty good singer. I do comedy pretty well. I've been told by audience members that I have good timing. I'd like to do what I do with DP on a grander scale."

Unfortunately for Jennings, there aren't many disabled characters onstage, and many of those roles are going to non-disabled actors. In the past month on Broadway, there have been protests from disability rights groups over the casting of two disabled characters in major productions.

First, the producers of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (based on a novel by Carson McCullers) gave the pivotal role of John Singer, a deaf man, to Henry Stam a hearing actor who had previously played the part in Atlanta. Two weeks later, Abigail Breslin, who can both see and hear, was cast as Helen Keller in a revival of The Miracle Worker.

"A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface," said Linda Bove, a deaf actress and board member of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for minority, disabled and deaf artists, told The New York Times.

"Blackface" or not, playing a disabled character can be a pretty good career move. A persuasive performance as a disabled character is a well-worn path to critical acclaim; just look at the Oscar nominations, for instance, for Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn for their work in Born on the Fourth of July, My Left Foot and I Am Sam.

Some disability advocates complain that disabled actors aren't even given a chance to audition for disabled roles. The producer of The Miracle Worker explained that, in order to have a chance of breaking even, he needed to cast a star, and Breslin is already well-known for her work in the movie Little Miss Sunshine.

The producers of the TV show Glee told the Associated Press they auditioned a wide range of actors for the part of Artie, a chorus member who uses a wheelchair. "We brought in anyone: white, black, Asian, in a wheelchair," said executive producer Brad Felchuk. "It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV."

The part eventually went to Kevin McHale, who is not disabled.

Aarya Sara Locker, the DisAbility Project's associate director, recently returned from a year working in London where she shared an apartment with an actress who had lost her sight when she was in her late twenties. "Margo has the mannerisms of a sighted person," Locker says. "She doesn't fit the stereotypes. She would go to auditions and get told she didn't look blind enough."

Jennings tries to keep track of disabled actors. "There's a guy in CSI, the medical examiner [Robert David Hall, who plays Dr. Al Robbins]. He's an amputee. And there was another guy in a wheelchair on The Golden Girls. Oh, and there's Marlee Matlin. She's deaf. And beautiful and thin, so does she count?

"I'm kidding," she continues. "But there are so many movies where people with disabilities are not played by people with disabilities. We're capable. When those parts go to someone 'normal,' it hurts."

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