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Lennard Davis Headshot

A Clarion Call to Non-Disabled Actors to Refuse to Play Disabled Characters

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It is time for actors to take an active role in one of the most reprehensible forms of prejudice in our time -- the discrimination against disabled people who are or who want to become actors. Hollywood studios and television production companies have failed to increase the number of disabled actors in film and other media. What is next?

The facts are that there are about 600 repeating characters in prime-time television, but only six characters are disabled; only one disabled actor plays any of those roles -- even though disabled people make up almost 20 percent of the population. In most films, there will be no disabled actors, and when there is a disabled character, it almost always will be played by a non-disabled actor. Think of the wheel-chair guy in Glee, quadriplegic Jason Street in Friday Night Lights (and his wheel-chair buddy Herc). Think of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman -- all non-disabled actors playing disabled roles.

Never any more would we tolerate whites playing blacks by using blackface to do that, but have no problems keeping disabled actors unemployed while non-disabled ones struggle to portray and often distort what its like to be disabled. But worse we are telling our next generation of bright-faced young thespians that if they have a disability they might as well forget a career in acting. What other identity group would we address in this way to shatter their dreams?

If Hollywood studios and television production companies won't take steps, I call on non-disabled actors all across the country to refuse to take roles that could be played by disabled actors. Let's call this policy "Don't Apply, Don't Accept." I know this is going to be hard since all actors need work. And it's going to next to impossible to pass up the role of Helen Keller or Christy Brown, but it's going to feel right and just and good to know that such a refusal makes a giant statement. And in 10 years or so, we'll look back in horror, as we do on Fred Astaire or Judy Garland in blackface, when we think that this kind of discrimination in regard to disability was not only tolerated but encouraged.