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Authenticity in Acting: Bringing Performers with Disabilities into the Spotlight

Authenticity in Acting: Bringing Performers with Disabilities into the Spotlight

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for the Office of Accessibility Services’ media-focused blog post. This week, we take a look at a June 2016 New York Times article about actors with disabilities . We consider the catalytic role that actors with disabilities have in diversity and inclusion initiatives in the creative arts – and in our society at large.  

In most television, film, and theater productions, able-bodied performers are cast to play individuals with disabilities. Ms. Katy Sullivan is a professional actress who is also a Paralympic medalist. She believes that acting is like “putting on someone else’s soul, putting on someone else’s life experiences and trying to be truthful about them, whether you’re disabled or not. [However], using performers with disabilities brings a layer of authenticity that you don’t have to go searching for.” 

When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time began casting for the part of Christopher, the protagonist whose behavior places him on the autism spectrum, controversy grew. Actors, artists, and activists turned to social media to implore producers to open casting calls to performers with autism. Actor Mickey Rowe wrote in an email, “‘All too often we learn about autism from non-autistic people instead of going straight to the source.’” Able-bodied performers playing individuals with disabilities, or what has been coined as, “cripping up,” have become controversial. 

How many opportunities are presented for differently-abled (a preferred term over “disabled” to avoid the negative connotation) performers? Theaters like Deaf West, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Apothetae (created in part to offer opportunities for artists with disabilities), have committed to integrating disabled actors, and their casting managers and producers provide able-bodied roles to differently-abled performers.

So, what’s the take away? Ms. Sullivan’s mantra is, “‘No’ is not a possibility.” Actors who are differently abled work hard to perfect their knowledge, skills, and abilities, as they pursue their dreams. Those of us interacting with differently-abled professionals must remember that “different” does not mean “inferior.”