No matter how hard you might try, it's difficult to think of many high-profile disabled actors. So, when a film role in which the protagonist has a disability becomes available, you might think that the studio would consider disabled actors for the role - but this is very rarely the case. Because of the lack of opportunities, The Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading disability rights group, has now condemned the casting of Alec Baldwin as a visually impaired man in his new film, Blind.
The foundation's president, Jay Ruderman, said in a statement that:
“Alec Baldwin in 'Blind' is just the latest example of treating disability as a costume”
Ruderman followed this up by drawing comparisons to whitewashing, another controversy that highlights how regularly studios opt to cast caucasian actors, even if a character was originally intended to be another race entirely:
“We no longer find it acceptable for white actors to portray black characters. Disability as a costume needs to also become universally unacceptable”
It would be fantastic to see more disabled actors given opportunities to show their acting talents in major releases, and these actors certainly shouldn't be sidelined for their disabilities. Still, the reality is that a staggering amount of roles representing disabled characters are not played by disabled actors.
So, Why Are Disabled Actors A Rarity In The Film Industry?
In fact, The Guardian recently reported that 95% of all disabled roles are played by able-bodied actors. With just 5% of roles left for those with disabilities, it's no wonder there are very few disabled stars who have been able to establish themselves in Hollywood.
From a financial point of view, having a bankable star like Baldwin, who recently experienced box office success with The Boss Baby, makes a film more likely to turn a profit. Louise Dyson, who works for a talent agency for disabled actors, presenters and models, recently spoke about the controversial casting, stating that Baldwin’s new role is financially motivated.
"[Baldwin's casting is] entirely about money and getting the film funded ... they go for a big name every time and there are no big names who have disabilities"
However, if no risks are taken to cast unknown actors, the damning statistic that just 5% of disabled characters are played by disabled actors is unlikely to change any time soon.
In fact, playing a disabled character in a bug-budgeted Hollywood film can often lead to an actor's most acclaimed performance. This is so prevalent that 16% of Academy Awards won for Best Actor have been given to those playing characters with mental or physical disability.
Some will argue that it is in no way offensive for a talented, able-bodied actor to play a disabled actor. After all, look at Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Both actors gave sincere performances that also helped raise awareness of those suffering from cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) respectively. However, when looking at the statistics, it's clear that these respectful adaptations don't tell the whole story.
What Efforts Are Being Made To Change This?
Despite the poor representation of disabled actors in the film industry, there have been glimmers of hope in recent years. The groundbreaking TV series Breaking Bad cast RJ Mitte, an up-and-coming actor with cerebral palsy. The actor was a revelation as Walter White's son, and is a great example of why disabled actors should be considered for major roles.
Remarkably, only 1.2% of actors on TV are disabled - a figure that strongly suggests this issue is prevalent across many forms of entertainment, and is not exclusive to the big screen. In response to television's lack of representation, the BBC made a pledge back in 2014 to quadruple the number of disabled actors in their shows by 2017. As the controversy surrounding Baldwin's new role continues, hopefully more film and TV studios will make similar pledges for their upcoming titles.
What do you think of Alec Baldwin's controversial new role? Let me know with a comment.