EHHS Students Discuss Characters with Disabilities in Film

Able-bodied and neurotypical actors have been portraying disabled characters for a very long time with little to no moral wrong-doing in their portrayal. There are dozens of dramatic, romantic, and comedic films that depict mentally challenged, neurotypical, or disabled characters. And more often than not, these characters are played by able-bodied actors, rather than people with the disability portrayed in the character, who give really good and accurate portrayals. EHHS students are split on whether or not it is morally acceptable for able-bodied actors to portray disabled persons. Some films have been criticized for the casting choices, like Music by Sia, while others have been praised and the actor in question being rewarded for their performance, like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.

Most EHHS students don't have a problem with disabled characters being portrayed by able-bodied/neurotypical actors. 60% of the surveyed EHHS students say, at their core, that there’s nothing wrong with able-bodied/neurotypical actors portraying disabled characters. Aleanis Letriz said, “I think that they should first try working with an actor with the disability described in the character, and if for some reason it’s not working then they could cast able-bodied actors.” Karli Kane gave a similar response, “I feel like if the character being portrayed has a disability that would restrict people with that disability from knowingly playing that role, then it is okay, but otherwise I think that characters with disabilities that do not restrict them should be played by people with that disability.”

Samantha Agelin made an interesting point: “‘Disability drag’ – casting able-bodied actors in the roles of characters with disabilities – has been hard to dislodge from its Oscar-worthy appeal.” Some able-bodied/neurotypical actors being praised and rewarded for their portrayal of a disabled character, with Daniel-Day Lewis being an example. The main concern is actors with the disability described in a character be given the opportunity to audition for the part. And if an able-bodied actor is going to portray said character, that they show respect and give an accurate portrayal, and not make a joke or mockery of the character's disabilities.

The film industry, and their choices in portraying disabilities in film, call into question the concept of ableism. Ableism is intentionally excluding people with disabilities, making fun of them, and/or treating them inferior to other people. When asked if an able-bodied actor playing a mentally challenged character is an example of ableism on display, or just an actor doing their job, the answers were very similar. Aleanis Letriz said: “In my opinion, I don’t think that would be considered ableism, but rather just the actor doing their job unless of course, the actor thinks they are superior because they [were] cast the part instead of a disabled person with the same disability and just overall mocking them and making them feel like they are less human because of their disability”. Most of the responders have come to the same conclusion: That an able-bodied/neurotypical actor being cast in the role is not a form of ableism, but rather just them doing their job.

A person’s opinion is formed based on a number of factors, namely their own personal experiences, and the responses given are no different. Though not all the responders have personal connections with the disabled community, 46.7% specifically, a majority of them are aware of the community. At least 33.3%, do know people that have disabilities, some being friends or family members, and their responses are influenced by what they know from them. A few responders know people with cerebral palsy, with one of them saying that they are often inspired by characters with disabilities being featured in film, which goes to show that the portrayal is what’s most important, not the person acting out the performance.

Though at the end of the day everyone can have their own opinion on a character’s portrayal in a film, the overall opinion shared by students in EHHS is that when it comes to an able-bodied actor portraying a disabled character, it’s not a problem, as long as there is respect given. Overall, EHHS students hope that actors, screenwriters, and the film industry as a whole, provide accurate portrayals, and don't fall into any stereotypes that the media depicts. If these expectations are met, then the actor is well within the right to play a disabled character.