Monday, September 27, 2010

Disabled performers fight discrimination in the entertainment industry

Children with aging diseases like progeria are often bullied because
of their distorted appearance, unlike Robin Williams’
natural-looking character in the movie “Jack”
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, from: The Cell Nucleus and Aging: Tantalizing Clues and Hopeful Promises. Scaffidi P, Gordon L, Misteli T. PLoS Biology Vol. 3/11/2005, e395

In recent articles, I’ve listed a few examples I’ve seen that show “Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles.” However, we must acknowledge the need for “Finding the middle ground when casting disabled characters.” But in many instances, there’s simply no excuse for not filling roles with performers whose disabilities match, or at least come close to, the challenges faced by the characters.

I’ve organized this part of the discussion in somewhat chronological order, so the list parallels my own path of enlightenment regarding the issue. That’s because, as a TV kid, I grew up watching old media stereotypes regarding disability. That’s one of the many reasons I had such a problem dealing with my own growing disability over the years. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

First, here are several disabled characters played by able-bodied actors, though the roles could easily have been filled by people with the same disabilities--in some instances, even the real people the stories were based on:

In 1979, Stockard Channing starred in “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story,” a portrayal of the hearing-impaired stuntwoman who holds the women’s land speed record for driving a rocket-powered racing car. Then in 1982, Marc Singer played musician, composer, and actor Tom Sullivan in “If You Could See What I Hear.”

At the time, I thought it was pretty good that the stories of these people with disabilities were portrayed as the complex individuals they are. But then in 1983 I was more impressed by the fact that the producers of “Simon & Simon” cast a blind woman, Cheryl McMannis, as a blind Ph.D. in the episode, “I Heard It Was Murder.” Around that time, I read an interview in which McMannis expressed frustration with the industry because she was often bypassed for sighted actors to play blind roles.

Then in the late ‘80s two actors received praise for the skill with which they portrayed a couple with developmental disabilities, but that was before disabled activists began shining such a bright spotlight on the issue. First Larry Drake began playing Benny Stulwicz on “L.A. Law.” Later Kathleen Wilhoite joined the cast as Rosalie Hendrickson, Benny’s eventual bride. While the show did dramatize many issues faced by such a couple, it would have been far more inspiring if the actors were actually developmentally disabled.

Two award-winning movies came along in the early 1990s. Al Pacino portrayed Lt. Colonel Frank Slade in “Scent of a Woman,” and Tom Hanks played “Forrest Gump.” I tolerated one viewing of the latter, as much because of Lt. Dan Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, whose character was first able-bodied and later a double amputee. But with my growing consciousness, I found myself uncomfortable with the stereotypical roles of the developmentally disabled but heroic Gump and the embittered blind retiree in “Scent.”

Another performance that received positive reviews at the time was that of Robin Williams in the movie “Jack.” When he played Jack Charles Powell, a character who was supposed to be 10 years old but had the body of a 40-year-old man, Williams made to attempt to change his normal appearance to portray the distortions and deformities that are the hallmark of early aging diseases.

It occurred to me that Williams’s performance is actually a disservice to the children who experience so much bullying because of their unusual appearance. In fact, if Williams had such a strong urge to play a childlike character, he would have been more honest if he’d played a role similar to that of Adam Sandler’s “Billy Madison.”

On the other hand, this is my chance to hand out another gold star to our favorite forensic drama. In the “Bones” episode, “Stargazer in a Puddle,” the victim was a young woman with one of the aging diseases Williams claimed to have dramatized in “Jack.” True to their practice of showing the harsh realities of death and life, the “Bones” producers used the photo of a young woman whose body and face resemble that of a very old woman, just like that of the child with Progeria, shown above.

You might understand from my first article in the series, “Time to end ‘blackface’ practices toward disabled actors and characters,” I have nothing positive to say about a black actor like Alex Desert playing the blind concession stand operator, Jake Malinak, in “Becker.” It’s bad enough for an able-bodied white actor to take the role of a disabled person. Given the history of discrimination in the media against people of color, I’d hope for more understanding from an African-American actor.

In my next article, I’ll discuss why stereotypical disabled characters provide a false picture of what life is like for people with all manner of disabilities.

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