Actors and Actresses are Being Forced to Hide Their Disabilities

Hollywood can be cruel, especially to people who are different. We have all seen what the film portrayals and casting have done to those who are actors of color, and those who are LGBT, especially transgender, but seldom do we hear about the unjust treatment of actors with disabilities. It is happening, and it is brutal. Disabled actors are not being cast in films, and it is not because there are no talented actors. It is not because they did not do well in auditions. It is not because they cannot handle the roles. It is not because it is more expensive to have disabled actors on set. It is not because disabled people can’t work long hours. All of these are inaccurate myths that Hollywood has created, as excuses for why they are not hiring disabled actors.

The truth is Hollywood is not giving disabled actors the chance to even audition. The fact is, some casting directors won’t even include disabled actors in casting notices. Many casting directors refuse to even see disabled actors, and when they do, they refuse to consider passing their information on to directors. Hollywood believes that America is not ready to see actually disabled people, but we exist in the world. We deserve to be seen. We deserve to be heard! The more they continue to deny us the same opportunities as other actors the worse we are treated in society. We are not understood, accepted, or even seen as human beings. Hollywood perpetuates the myth that we are so different, we should not be seen. They believe audiences are more comfortable seeing someone pretending to be us, even if it’s at the expense of our community.

Keira Knightly

This means that actors who have disabilities (especially invisible disabilities) must hide their disabilities until they become famous enough it does not matter. Keira Knightly had long been famous when she spoke out about growing up with dyslexia. Christopher Reeve was a celebrated actor, most especially known for portraying Superman, who most likely never would have had the chance to act or direct in films after his spinal injury had he not already been famous. Glenn Close had also been a celebrated actress when she started talking about her depression.

While SAG counted over 1000 self-proclaimed disabled people in its ranks in 2005, it has been hard to predict how many actors are actually disabled. This is largely the result of fear and stigma in the industry. I had an actress struggling to find work already, who is terrified that if Hollywood casting directors find out she is disabled they will no longer offer her the chance to audition. Her fear is justified, and very real. She is not alone. In her own words, here is her story:

We all fight so many things in this world. A very smart man said to me that we are all broken in some way. Knowing that, why must we focus on our differences? Why must we fight for equality in all manners? Shouldn’t that be a given? I write this anonymously because I feel I can’t come forward, and that is sad and unfair. But the truth of the matter is, I want to work, and there is too much judgement in the world and especially in our Business.

I started performing as a little girl, it was in my blood. I knew I needed it. I needed to sing and to become other characters and create new worlds. To be able to show an honest portrayal of the human condition and help others see what it would be like to be in those worlds. I’ve experienced a lot in my lifetime so far, more than most. I won’t go into it all, because the current focus of this, is the stigma on “disabilities” and the need for those of us with invisible illnesses to hide instead of stepping forward to help others like us. I was born with two rare diseases that took many, many years to diagnose.

When I was 16, while doing three shows at once, my knee gave way on me. I kept going because the drive, the adrenaline, the passion of performing gets you through anything. You become Superwoman. I refused to have the surgery until the shows were completed because the show will always go on. It’s a shame the doctor who performed my surgery didn’t diagnose me at that point. His words were “It’s genetic and should have been both knees”. We had no idea what that meant, maybe he didn’t either. I spent a year in leg braces and crutches being called names, having things thrown at me, but I kept going.

This, I know, minor, but skip forward to years later, to current day, and for now, forget what falls in the middle. I have moderate/severe Chiari Malformation and multiple forms of Ehler-Danlos Syndrome. Most of you will probably not know what these diseases are. Don’t feel badly, because most doctors don’t seem to know either, another problem that could be helped with acceptance in this great field that shows and teaches the world so much.

I made the mistake of telling my agent, thinking the relationship we had, could guide me as to, do I come forward, do I continue hiding in the shadows. Not only was I met with deafening silence, the appointments suddenly dropped off, replaced only with excuses.

Very few people know, close friends, some colleagues, some coaches, doctors…Many of those people now meet my gaze with pity. We all know the look. Knowing I was having a rough day and thinking it a compliment I was told “You are a true Professional. I knew you were bad today, so I was ready to catch you if you fell. But, you didn’t. You were flawless. I’m impressed.” Why would a bad day of mine have an effect on my performance? Why do we feel we must hide? This is why. I’m not made of porcelain. Only I know my limitations. If I can’t do the job, I will not stand in front of you and tell you I can. So many are afraid of what they don’t understand. Instead of realizing we can bring you an honest, human perspective that no one else can, they opt for the assumption that we are just broken and can’t do the job at all.

I, and others like me, have so much to offer. Not only do we have the talent, years of training, professionalism, poise, business sense, but we also have a strength that most can only try to imagine. We fight for everything we get and everything we do, and [we] can give honest performances to moments that others have never experienced. Don’t close the doors to us. Open them. Trust that we know our capabilities and can give so much to the beautiful art and career that chose us.

The actress, who lives in Los Angeles, has asked to remain anonymous. She cannot come forward because she fears what may happen if she does. How can we let an entire industry do this? How is this not discrimination? Something needs to change, and we will only see that change when actors, and even crewmembers on film sets, no longer have to hide their disabilities in order to continue working in the industry.

18 responses to “Actors and Actresses are Being Forced to Hide Their Disabilities”

  1. This is so disappointing. It hurts me to know that the industry could be so cruel. What makes them think that people with disabilities can’t do what those without them can? If anything, people like us can do the same if not MORE than those who don’t have disabilities. I often discussed these kinds of fears with my sister. Asking her questions such as, what if I can’t act the way they want me to? What if they kick me out? Not being able to read whatever scripts they’d have when you go in for a reading is a big obstacle, especially for visually impaired people. I am very disappointed in the fact that disabilities are tossed aside just because of what they have, or don’t have. Every single person in this world is special. They need to realize that. Sometimes we bring things to the table that others don’t. With that being said, I must admit that even going for my dreams of becoming a singer/songwriter and or voice actress have totally been shattered by this. Because you can see my disability, and if they treat others that way, I can only imagine what it would be like for me.

  2. I think this is a real problem in the industry. People want to see people like themselves. (Look how the barbies have changed to reflect America’s population better just as an example).
    I think it’s time the industry include all actors. Why wouldn’t we want to see an actor that is struggling like the rest of the world? Of course we would. It makes people feel like they are not battling things alone. When your in a war you don’t send one person. When your casting you don’t cast one type of person, one race, one gender. You cast inclusively. This includes disabled people. We need to reflect all American’s, not just the healthy. It’s a toxic planet now, fukashima, 3 mile island, toxic dumping, land fills, toxic land fills burning and chemicals in the water table. Of course people will get sick. If you don’t treat the land well everyone suffers, people, animals, fish, etc. Even the plant life suffers. Look at Chernobyl. It’s time the real issues were reflected in the movies. Look how popular the movie Erin Brocovitch was and it had lots of disabled people in it. Get real hollywood, wake up and smell the coffee and the current situations!

  3. PFFFFT!!!!

    This is not only in the acting industry…try in the LABOR community..or auto industry…or even in cashiers for that matter..Hollywood doesn’t make the world go round..they are simply in the public eye.

    With my disability I had to make ends meet by actually WORKING with those taxes like ‘normal people’ then once on the ranks of being actually ‘awarded’ disability for something I have suffered with since childhood..I am now (as MANY are with disabilities) shoved under the rug and dismissed by the mainstay of the society we live in in the USA..welfare dodgers, all know the story.. boo who on those who can’t accept that there are actually people with disabilities who can DO things instead of judging them because they have a disability.

    Bipolar disorder along with a spinal injury don’t allow a career contractor to continue their rolls on the tax paying lists of the great USA.. No,I don’t want to live somewhere else….but there is certainly space for improvements here in this (and a myriad of others)

    • Yes! It is a problem in all careers. We need to have widespread reform, for people with disabilities, so that they can work without being penalized in any way simply because they are disabled. I happen to focus on writing about Hollywood, because my career is in film. Thank you for your comment, because it is imperative we discussed this for all career opportunities.

  4. I can’t wait to see what happens when I show up to an audition with my service dog when I return back to Los Angeles. I will have to have a friend stay with her in the lobby during auditions, (especially for voice over gigs since the booth needs to be completely silent.) She is a PTSD service dog who also senses a sudden shift in my blood pressure from another illness, and I think her seeing me drop into character would confuse her, esp since I get called in for assertive, alpha female type characters. I will have to cross that bridge when we get there. I had to drop off and go back east (don’t get sick in LA unless you’re rich and can pay all the “great” doctors who refuse insurance) to get diagnosed and get help for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Dysautonomia & POTS. I did not know I had these things all I know is that I kept getting sicker, was experiencing more pain, and was intolerant to the sun or extreme heat. I did not know that I had dysautonomia and lost the ability to regulate my own body temperature. I was shooting a scene in the desert with a lot of stunt work in the middle of summer and started to faint, hyperventilate and talk crazy. There was very little blood going to my brain from the vasodilation. I felt like I was dying and suffocating. I was so embarrassed, I did not know how to explain myself. I did not know that I had a medical condition. I have record-breaking low blood volume and my team is scrambling to put me back together. I will not be able to take roles that shoot in the middle of the desert in summer as one example. I am physically unable to tolerate it or function in it. It would be unprofessional for me to represent myself in that way. That is an example of me not being able to do what another actor without illness can. However, I bring a very specific point of view to my characters and not a lot of women in Hollywood can do what I do, nor bring what I bring. I have faith in my ability, my storytelling, my integrity and God. I am not worried about it. I do not care what people think of me, because I know who I am, and they can authentically feel that when I walk into the room. I think that is one of the reasons I get booked. Hollywood is filled with passive-aggressive, opportunistic liars who care SO MUCH about what everybody thinks of them. Most everyone is afraid to tell the truth in Hollywood. It is truly bizarre and psychologically intolerable. I just work there. I stopped considering it my “home.” There are good people everywhere and I know some of them, and I will continue to draw them into my life. This whole return to LA thing is gonna be a big adjustment for me, and I will take it a step at a time. It is definitely in my future to come public about INVISIBLE ILLNESS with a focus on POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) and Dysautonomia. Hollywood has to change. It cannot continue to operate in the same way that is has, esp the bad habit of rewarding people for bad behavior. Good, honest people need to rise up and take the reigns and stop caring so much about what everyone thinks. My hope is that we will see more and more of this. I have come to believe over the past year or so of treatments and various lengths of being bedridden, that this is a part of my life’s work to bring this to light. I’m not afraid to do the right thing in public. I am actually a pretty fearless person and perhaps that is why I feel the calling. Well… maybe this combat PTSD will come in handy after all. 😉

    Support and thanks goes out to the gentleman doing this site.

  5. There are many actresses and actors with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, one of whom died from an accidental head injury while skiing, one of whom had a dissecting aortic aneurysm on set. I routinely look at people in the movies and evaluate their elbow angle (it drives my wife mad) one of them demonstrated his ability to bend his fingers completely backwards whilst being interviewed at the Oscars. … it’s not a rare disease, just rarely diagnosed. It is quite possible that EDS is much more common in actors because one of the traits is really nice skin

  6. I understand the struggle this actress goes through as I also suffer from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety and a few more disabilities most of which are invisible. It is hard enough to fit into the world today without looking healthy but being so very ill. There are good days where it appears as nothing is wrong but on those bad days it seems as if you are being pulled apart from the inside out. You want to tell others so you have support but you want to tell no one so you can keep a job, have friends, and maintain some self respect. The struggle is always there. The condition is degenerative so you know you better become great at what you do or find an out before it gets too bad. Just hold on for the ride. Who knows what tomorrow brings.

  7. Mark my words! One of these days, this will change for the better! It’s got to! But we, the physically challenged community, need to make issues like this public in the media. We need to speak out and protest these injustices!

  8. Thank you for the those showing support & especially thank you to Dominick who continues to fight for all human beings, no matter what. You can not judge a person for not coming forward, when coming forward means the difference between working or not working. Yes, this is a problem across the board in all industries. The focus on the arts, to me, is because that is where great change could be made. The problem is in New York & LA, it is not just Hollywood centric. It is an issue that so many are programmed to judge by what they don’t know instead of allowing a person to judge their own capabilities. The entertainment Industry is where great change could be made because by showing people as people, by mentioning and showing the realities of so many rare and under-diagnosed diseases, so many could be educated, including the doctors who are unaware of these diseases and do not properly diagnose. The doctors who do further damage with treatments that further the deterioration of these diseases or send people away saying it is in their heads.

  9. I wish this actress would step forward and educate the population in regards to Chiari. As a chiarian, I want to educate everyone. Chiari is more prevalent than ALS but there are no cold water challenges for Chiari. Please step out and be brave!

  10. Why did they show a picture of Kiera knightly unless she has been diagnosed with one of these disabilities. Doesn’t labeling her cause difficultys for her?

    • Michele – Keira has spoken out about being dyslexic openly (see the attached link in the section where I write about her)! The idea is once you become established enough as someone like her, it can often be easier to come out as having a disability.

  11. “Something needs to change, and we will only see that change when actors, and even crewmembers on film sets, no longer have to hide their disabilities in order to continue working in the industry.”

    I was a crew member, former member of IATSE 873, paint department. I was employed in film for 18 years as a scenic artist and loved every second of it. Unfortunately, not knowing I had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (Hypermobility/mild Classic) and multiple related comorbidities, I inadvertently destroyed my body doing the job I loved. When I first started experiencing major issues back in 2012 my peers and my Key tried to make every accommodation possible so I could continue in my capacity as a scenic, but sadly a mix of the wrong medical interventions and a deteriorating body made it impossible for me to continue. Perhaps because I had worked in the industry for so many years whilst able bodied I was fortunate enough not to have to deal with any discrimination, instead I experienced empathy, compassion and support from both my local and my peers. Having said that however, now I am diagnosed and permanently disabled by my condition(s), I can not envision any capacity that would allow for me to return to the career I loved so much simply because the majority of the studios we spend our lives in are not wheelchair accessible and even if I were to shift my focus & skill set to graphics or cgi I would have no means of accessing the art department offices almost always located upstairs. I do really miss it though.

    • Tamara —

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I am sorry to hear even with accommodation you struggled to do what you love. In my experience, talking with other actors and crewmembers, it is often easier for those already established in the industry to come out as disabled. If you have earned the respect of your peers, it isn’t always lost by talking about your disability. Glad your key was willing to accommodate, but wheelchair accessibility is a HUGE problem on many sets.

      I would love to talk to you sometime about accommodating you on sets. I am a wheelchair using film director always looking for workers in art departments…perhaps we can help one another? Do you have Twitter or FB? Look me up and let’s chat!

  12. Actors with disabilities. If you’re going to publish an article- PLEASE use proper grammar. You never define a person by an ailment. People come first.

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment. Actually, if you spoke to many activists in the disability community, you would find that many of us are turning towards using identity first language, as opposed to person first language.

      I personally prefer to identify as a disabled person, although in most articles I have chosen to go back-and-forth between person first and identity first language, since many of us have different preferences.

      I urge you to check out the #SayTheWord Disabled campaign on social media for more on this. We all have the right to choose how we identify!

      Again, thanks for your comment!

      ~Proud to be DISabled

  13. 100 years ago people with MS were told it was all in their heads because the considtion wasn’t known & there was no test for it. EDS is difficult with no blood test & the medical communtiy thinking it is “benign hypermobility”. As a physician, I have learned more from my patients but have difficulty finding specialists who understand the condition. There is no magic pill but a lot of little things that can make living with the condition easier.
    Dr Janet

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