The issue with able-bodied actors taking roles with disabilities

The BBC’s announcement of the lead in the re-make of The Elephant Man recently drew much criticism. Though some believe that simply the highlighting of this rare condition on the small screen should be celebrated, others argue that it is incredibly disheartening to see, just like all the remakes before it, an able-bodied actor, in this case Charlie Heaton, cast in the role that could have been given to an actor with a disability. 

This is only the most recent in a series of missed opportunities to cast a actor with a disability in a part where the character has a disability. 

Maverick, the man who the main character in the film is based on, is believed to have had a condition called neurofilbromatosis. Actor Adam Pearson, who has the condition, told the BBC he was not even offered an audition. Yet, this lack of regard for considering a diverse range of actors is not new. 

Eddie Redmayne, an able-bodied actor, was cast in The Theory of Everything and Francois Cluzet in Intouchables, both of which are parts for which actors with disabilities could have been considered. This Hollywood ableism is similar to the whitewashing of the film industry, Scarlett Johansson’s role as what was originally meant to be an Asian woman in Ghost of the Shell, being a perfect example.

Of course, some argue that not only is it important that films cast famous actors as they need to ensure good box office takings, but also that casting a actor with a disability would only be done as a box-ticking exercise, meaning that a better actor might miss out on the part. This, the argument goes, will lead to typecasting which will prevent actors from actually acting, only ever playing roles that they themselves have experienced. 

Yet these arguments fall down when it is considered that, firstly in order to gain prominence and fame necessary in bringing in the big money that the big studios desire, actors with disabilities need to be cast in the first place. 

Secondly, the argument that ‘a better actor’ might miss out on the part, rests on the belief that there are no actors with disabilities capable of playing a role that they have far more experience of, which frankly is ableist.

We need to examine the principle of casting able-bodied actors over actors with disabilities rather than the specific instances. 

People with disabilities are among the least likely of minority groups to be cast in roles, which has huge repercussions on representation and awareness. Though in other areas Hollywood is improving, thus changing how we all see society, there is a long way to go with disabilities.

Though there has been some positive change such as the Invictus Games and the Paralympics encouraging sport for people of all abilities, until people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and disabilities feel they aren’t restricted in what roles they can get, and are properly represented in our culture, only then will society be able to change and cease society’s ableist orientation.


Image: Movie Review by BagoGames Image from Flikr

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