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Why are so Many Disabled Roles Played by Non-Disabled Actors?
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Why are so Many Disabled Roles Played by Non-Disabled Actors?

The hit film, “A Theory of Everything” saw Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking, a role for which he was Oscar nominated. But should the role have been taken on by a disabled actor?

There’s a long and illustrious history of abled-bodied actors playing disabled characters. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his depiction of Christy Brown, the Irish writer who was born with cerebral palsy, in “My Left Foot”, and Dustin Hoffmann won the best actor award for his portrayal of an autistic man in “Rain Man”. Now some disability campaign groups are beginning to question why such roles are not being offered to people with disabilities. After all, surely a disabled person would be far more competent at portraying the nuances of living with a disability than an able-bodied actor who was just pretending.

RJ Mitte, who played Walter White Junior in the cult series “Breaking Bad” and has cerebral palsy agrees. He said in a BBC interview that no-one should be denied the chance to play the role of a disabled person. He said that an “accurate and honest portrayal” is important.

There is an argument that disabled actors would not be able to cope with conveying the transition from non-disabled to disabled, as Redmayne did with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. This might be true but surely it would be more authentic to have a disabled actor in a disabled role? It would appear that one problem is the incredibly limited pool of actors with disabilities who are also big box-office draws. No film director wants to make a film with an unknown actor playing a leading role as this could spell a ratings disaster.

So why is the pool of disabled actors so small? There is a very high level of competition for disabled parts as there are so few of them. It’s argued that one big reason why disabled actors are passed over in favour of abled-bodied ones is that the film industry is shallow in its attitudes. Directors regularly decide against casting actors because of their hair colour, build, height etc or any other trait they simply don’t want to see in their production.

There is clearly discrimination here, but it’s incredibly difficult to overcome. The onus is very much on disabled people to try to get past the unfair taboos of the industry.

Mitte says this is just the way it goes for disabled actors. He says that it’s difficult to get a break in the industry whether you’re disabled or not. It all comes down to confidence.

Perhaps as attitudes and discriminatory practices are gradually consigned to the past, we’ll see more disabled actors taking on disabled roles, and one day receiving an Oscar for their work.

Image source: The Arts Desk

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