A movie about Helen Keller has recently made headlines, but not for the reasons most would think. Many people expressed disappointment because a deaf-sighted actor landed the role of Helen Keller, who was deafblind. They want to see authentic representation of people with disabilities.

Supporters believed the role should be played by someone who is deafblind. After all, it's a different lived experience from someone who is deaf-sighted. How could the actor accept the role? How could the producers allow the casting of the role?

I, a deaf-sighted person, was one of the supporters who shared frustration with the casting of a deaf-sighted actor in the role. But it's not that simple. 

 

The Real Problem with Getting Authentic Representation 

A webinar conversation on accessibility in the workplace for deafblind individuals with Joe Devon, Doug Roland, Wendy Chouinard, and Scott Davert had me rethinking things.

First of all, fewer than 10 years ago, non-disabled actors landed many of the roles where the character has a disability. The fact someone with a disability landed the role is progress. We should celebrate that.

Secondly, it's not a simple situation of asking the casting team to find deafblind actors and auditioning them. Academy Award® Nominated Filmmaker Doug Roland pointed out that we need to discuss how to solve this problem. How do we improve this situation in the long-term? More importantly, how do we change the infrastructure to better support actors with disabilities to help them get meaningful training to set them up for success?

Now, a few directors like Roland will work with non-actors. But it's unrealistic to think every production can support this. Thus, the industry needs to invest in creating an accessible infrastructure for creatives with disabilities.

Roland wasn't aware of any acting classes that were accessible to people with disabilities. And he has looked. How can we expect to fill a deafblind role or any role of people with disabilities if we don't have an infrastructure to properly prepare them for auditions, callbacks, and landing the role?

Plenty of people with disabilities will never give a thought to a creative career in Hollywood. It's nearly impossible to make it in Hollywood. Add a disability to that and it becomes impossible. I took drama classes in school. I did a play in high school and one in a community theater.

However, the dream of going to Hollywood never entered my mind. I didn't allow myself to consider it because the reality was that my uncool hearing-free accent that hailed from nowhere had no chance.

"People often don't even attempt to do something if they don't feel like there's a path for them to do it," Roland says.

 

The Hollywood Catch-22

Writers generally can't sell a script until they have an agent. An agent cannot represent writers who are not members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The same can go for actors. A lot of agents won't work with anyone until they've gotten their SAG-AFTRA card.

Dave Bryant, Diamond VP of Special Projects, explains that a writer has a better chance of writing a book that does well enough to catch Hollywood's attention. There are many more books published than there are theatrical features produced. The odds are simply better for books as opposed to doing a speculative script.

Robert Tarango, the actor who is deafblind and appears in Roland's "Feeling Through," has wanted to be an actor since he was a child. He knew there wasn't anyone like him in the movies or on TV. So, he didn't think it was possible.

Thanks to Tarango appearing in the film, some people with disabilities want to try their hand at acting. This example shows when you create representation, then people will line up wanting to do that.

"But you can't expect to snap your fingers and fix that problem without addressing why that's happening," Roland says. "My hope is that this will be a great opportunity to talk about how to create systems that cultivate the ability for people to train as actor, or whatever creative pursuit they want."

And that conversation inspired Joe Devon and I to come up with this article to help provide a spark to effect change.

 

What Needs to Change in Hollywood

Wendy Chouinard explains that media can shift attitudes and cause a cultural change. She gives the example of "I Love Lucy." Here you have a bicultural marriage that was just not seen on media at the time. It shifted cultural norms.

"And if we were to start off with things like using authentic actors to play their authentic selves or to display the ability they have, then they would be able to start changing the minds of the new generation, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z," Chouinard says.

One thing that can change is to have staff writers add more characters with disabilities. After all, at least one in four people have a disability. A show with 20 characters needs to have at least five with a disability. 

This doesn't mean the writers have to build a story around the person's disability. They could create a character who has ADHD or is neurodivergent. For example, it's never been said outright whether Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory" had a disability. Fans have commented they believe Sheldon had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) with his compulsion for knocking on the door three times and fear of germs. People have commented that he was on the autism spectrum.

Mayim Bialik, who played Amy Farrah Fowler on the show, is in a unique position to comment on it. She's a neuroscientist who did her doctoral thesis on psychoneuroendocrinology. In a "Mayim Mishegaas" blog post, she commented on the lack of labels played an important role on the show.

Therefore, writers don't have to go out of their way to put labels on characters. They could have a character with ADHD exhibiting behaviors and mannerisms that some experience. "The Resident" featured a blind character who used a white cane and made self-deprecating jokes.

"Only Murders in the Building" has a deaf character who has conversations with others in sign language. They show him reading lips as a way to gain information. His ability to understand everything through lipreading was unrealistic, but I digress. They also had a character in a wheelchair and it was never talked about. She simply did her thing.

"NCIS: Los Angeles" had a character who was an engineer and clearly had training as she successfully fought off the villains in a fight scene without sound. Astute viewers noticed she didn't respond to an agent talking to her from behind. Eventually, they move in front of her, she takes her cochlear implant out of her pocket and puts it on. (Seriously, though, I wouldn't be carrying around my expensive cochlear implant in my pocket.)

Many steps need to happen to reach the day where characters with disabilities can be played by actors with similar disabilities. One of those is for writers to create more characters with disabilities.

Another is to make acting classes accessible to people with disabilities. It also needs agents like Gail Williamson of KMR Talent to take on actors with disabilities. The Ruderman Foundation has announced CBS Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, NBCUniversal, and Sony Pictures have signed the foundation's pledge to audition more actors with disabilities. 

These efforts came about from the Ruderman Family Foundation's challenge to Hollywood to change the landscape by casting people with disabilities. The foundation's market research reports that half of U.S. households support accurate portrayals of characters with disabilities. And these respondents' spending power exceeds $10 billion per month.

Not just anyone with a disability can audition for roles. They need training. To help people with disabilities qualify for roles, acting classes need to be accessible. Agencies must open the door for people with disabilities and ensure they have accessible websites.

Hollywood can also collaborate with organizations like Helen Keller Services, disability resource centers, and companies like Milt Wright and Associates who have experience in helping companies design and implement disability management programs.

 

Time for Action

Making change in Hollywood requires a multi-prong strategy. The Ruderman Foundation is moving the needle to get studios and networks to pledge to audition people with disabilities. To ensure actors have roles to audition for, writers need to consistently add characters with disabilities. Every episode and film should have multiple characters with disabilities to reflect the world's population.

How can actors with disabilities qualify for these roles? They need training that's accessible to them. The companies offering classes must have accessible websites to ensure their prospective students can sign up for classes without asking other people for help.

While I'd like to see a deafblind actor play Helen Keller, I'm grateful the film at least selected an actor with a disability. As it wasn't long ago when actors without disabilities took these roles. For another deafblind role to come about, writers need to create the character and many more characters with disabilities.

Once the industry has more roles available, it needs to have a selection of qualified actors to audition. For that to happen, the acting classes and their websites need to be accessible. It will take a village. And these companies taking Ruderman Family Foundation pledge show they want to take action. Now, the rest of Hollywood needs to follow suit to open the doors for prospective actors with disabilities.