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.
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.