It’s a scary word. In past blog posts I’ve written about my own fears, but now it’s time to talk about yours.Well ok, I’m generalizing. I’ll call the following a societal fear.
Did you know that nearly 20% of the American population is living with a disability? We are in the minority, but still…20% is over 50 million people! I’m guessing you may not have known that fact because nothing like that is visible in the media. It’s estimated that less than 2% of roles on TV exhibit any type of disability. What’s worse, only .5% of those roles ever get the chance to speak and the actors playing those roles might not even be disabled themselves. The most well-known show on TV featuring a disabled character is Glee. On that show the black actor is black, the Asian actor is Asian (even the actor who plays Kurt, the leading gay character, is gay), but the wheelchair user isn’t actually a wheelchair user. This must change. Acceptance of performers, writers, and directors with disabilities must be gained with the same awareness that has been achieved by artists of color and other minorities.
Here’s another fun fact that I bet you didn’t know; SAG (Screen Actors Guild) publishes a Casting Data Report that provides the industry with an analysis of the hiring practices and employment trends in film and television related to ethnicity, age and even gender. The industry does not currently report information about the hiring of actors with disabilities; hence, little is known about their employment. I’m assuming producers don’t want to add disability as diversity to the casting report because they’re afraid of what it will show. Statistics provided by the Actors Equity Association on the employment trends in Broadway and other theaters aren’t any better, as they are virtually nonexistent. Obviously, not much is being done to increase employment for performers with disabilities.
Why is this? I have a theory. As the disabled playwright, John Belluso, once said, “Disability is the minority no one wants to join but anyone can fall into at any time.” Society FEARS disability because it is the only minority we could all become part of!! This fear is increased because it isn’t seen, isn’t shown as a natural part of life. So how can we, as a society, solve this conundrum? Here’s a simple solution - cast more disabled actors (give me a job…or just a chance to audition!!).
Our disability doesn’t have to be featured, in fact, I’d prefer it be shown as a natural character choice. On Breaking Bad Walter White’s son has Cerebral Palsy, but the show doesn’t portray this trait as a disability, just a natural part of his role. It demonstrates very clearly the exuberance and independence as well as the challenges of a life lived with a disability. In this same show, however, one of the Mexican Cartel brothers loses both his legs being hit by Hank’s car and is mocked for it. His character is a bad guy, I get it. The audience should be happy this horrific injury happened to him. But consider this true story of a double amputee – He drops his daughter off at school in NYC, stands behind his car and suddenly gets hit by a taxi and loses both his legs.
This leads me to a trend I’ve noticed because I’m a new amputee – most leading amputee roles in movies are the bad guys! Think about it; Darth Vader, Dr. Curt Connors from The Amazing Spider Man, and Lieutenant Dan Taylor from Forrest Gump . These amputee villains play right into the mindset of society. There is fear of disability; we all want to think that if life is “fair” then the good guys can’t get hurt. No one wants to think that in the end the good guy loses a limb and becomes permanently disabled. But this happens every day all over the country. So why should those fears get projected onto us amputees?
Some of the strongest people I know live with a disability such as limb loss. This loss doesn’t make us saints, but it certainly doesn’t turn us evil. Being disabled is defined as lacking power, lacking strength, and lacking physical or mental ability. Adapting is defined as adjusting to different circumstances. People living with a disability shouldn’t be thought of as lacking, we should be more commonly known as adjusting.
I still want to be on Broadway. With that goal in mind I wanted to write a bit about performers with disabilities who have made it to Broadway or are performing regionally at Equity theaters. I’ve found they are few and far between. Few disabled performers get cast as a character not specified as having a disability, and there are hardly any disabled characters in plays and musicals. Even though I can hide my disability, my dream role is Sarah in Time Stands Still. She isn’t a disabled character but she does get injured in an explosion and that would give me the chance to incorporate my amputation into her character. What’s strange is that I have never seen or heard of an actress with a disability playing this role. Why are casting directors constantly missing these rare opportunities? Because society doesn’t want to think about the possibility that the good guy (or girl) can be or become permanently disabled.
It seems as though biopics (movies based on a true story) are the only outlet being used to convey a person living with limb loss as inspirational. Soul Surfer, Men of Honor, and 127 Hours are good examples. Does this mean, however, that our society can’t even begin to imagine and create an amputee role that is positive, active and kind spirited before and after becoming an amputee? Or is it that we don’t want to imagine a positive, active and kind spirited person becoming permanently disabled. If a good guy can lose a leg in the movies, does that mean it could happen to you? Yes. But does seeing it on a screen make it more likely? No.
My life didn’t end when I lost my leg. In some ways it feels like this is only the beginning. My injury is just another plot twist leading to a greater ending. After all, as they say in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, then it’s not the end.” At the end of The Hunger Games movie Peeta is a determined young man. At the end of the book, The Hunger Games, Peeta is a determined young man and an amputee. Why this change from paper to screen? Society fears disability and doesn’t want to see the good guy become an amputee. Not only have these writers missed the opportunity to cast an amputee actor, but they also could have incorporated the grueling psychological trauma of losing a limb into his character. This loss could have made his character more whole and demonstrated to society that one can still be the good guy and live life with a prosthetic leg.
Being disabled is being different. We aren’t born thinking different is bad but that’s what we’re taught in society. From a young age we learn that Captain Hook is a bad guy because of his physical deformity and his actions. The only way to end this fear of disability is to accept that it can happen to the good guys and stop portraying us as the villain. Let yourself and your children stare and ask questions about my prosthetic leg. Let me show you that I’m a person living a fulfilling life with a disability. Let me show you that there is nothing to fear.