I’ve just been reading Lisa Holdsworth‘s excellent blog on the BBC’s ‘Changing the Face of Drama’ seminar we attended at the TV Drama Writers’ Festival in Leeds.
If you haven’t read her blog, you should do that before you read the rest of this. Go on, I’ll wait for you.
Right, so I’ve been thinking about this too. That ‘24% of the UK population have a disability’ figure shocked me. I too came away thinking I’d put a wheelchair user in each script … but now I’m not sure that’s the right approach.
Hopefully none of the rest of this is offensive to anyone. These are my thoughts on the topic, I’ve tried to be honest and any offence will be caused by ignorance on my behalf. I don’t like being ignorant (despite frequently finding myself so) and would genuinely love to have my ignorance pointed out in the comments.
There were two main opinions on stage that day, one from Lisa Hammond and Ben Owen-Jones (two actors who used wheelchairs) who felt there weren’t enough roles for actors in wheelchairs and one from Lucy Gannon who felt writers should give people with disabilities a voice.
They both had different attitudes towards the problem – the actors felt you should just write a character as normal and then put them in a wheelchair, because they don’t want to only play characters who are defined by their disability and, primarily, because they just want more work.
For example, Ben felt like he could easily be cast as anyone sitting behind a desk because sitting in wheelchair is exactly like sitting in a normal chair.
Lucy, on the other hand, felt that a disability informs everything a character says and does, the very way they interact with the world and therefore putting a character in a wheelchair afterwards wouldn’t ring true.
I kind of understand both points of view (whilst accepting I may have misunderstood both points of view and be interpreting them incorrectly). I mean, if you transfer any line of dialogue from one character to another, you have to rewrite it, because each character talks and acts differently; so putting someone in a wheelchair must change at least one or two lines or actions, surely?
Part of the problem is how a wheelchair in a script translates into what you actually see on screen. If you just slap a random character into a wheelchair, then someone (producer, director or casting) will immediately ask you if they HAVE to be in a wheelchair, because it narrows the casting range/makes the shoot more difficult logistically and visually/scares the hell out of the narrow-minded.
In a low budget production, where the wrong choice of sandwich filling on the catering truck can cause the budget to implode, the first two are legitimate concerns. Anything which extends the shoot by even a minute can have a huge effect on whether or not the film actually gets made. Or even finished. If you have to ensure wheelchair access to every location then it makes things complicated. But is ‘complicated’ a good reason to ‘not do’?
Similarly, if you have to shoot multiple scenes with one person’s head three feet off the floor and another person’s head six feet off the floor, it’s a headache. The reason short actors end up standing on a box when standing next to a tall actor isn’t always the actor’s vanity, but is usually more to do with being able to see both people at the same time.
So if you put an actor in a wheelchair for no story reason beyond wanting to represent disability on screen then the response is likely to be “That’s lovely and noble, but would you mind doing that in your next film?”
The only way to ensure a character in a wheelchair in a script stays in a wheelchair by the time the story makes it to screen is to make the wheelchair an integral part of their character or the plot. Which leads into Lisa Holdsworth’s fear of getting it wrong, a fear I share and one which terrifies film makers.
I’ve worked with a director who felt female characters MUST be pure and innocent at all times because women weren’t like normal human beings. I’ve been shouted at for making a black character gay, because apparently that was racist (as opposed to the inherent homophobia in that statement). The film industry is full of people who completely misunderstand the point of political correctness and live in fear of causing controversy.
If I write one stupid character into a film and someone casts a black guy or a gay guy or a guy with a disability in the part – I fear I’d be pilloried for being racist, homophobic or … um … whatever the word is for being anti-disabled people. I read an Internet rant recently about how outrageous it was that Joss Whedon wrote a black, female character into Firefly who called a white man ‘captain’ – apparently that’s both racist and sexist.
Some people are actively looking for things to be upset about and those loons make life really awkward for everyone involved. Stupidly, I would tie myself up in knots agonising about whether or not a character in a wheelchair had any negative characteristics which the able-bodied characters didn’t have. Even though I know from actually talking to wheelchair-using actors that playing a complete moron or a complete cunt is exactly the sort of role they would love to be offered.
The smaller casting pool for actors with a disability is an issue too, because most actors can’t act. This is much the same as most writers can’t write and most directors can’t direct and most producers are incapable of being reasonable human beings. These are difficult professions and there really isn’t enough talent to go around, hence you end up with the mediocre filling up all the spaces left vacant by the lack of real talent.
Yes, this is why I have a career.
Less actors means less good actors, means a higher chance of not being able to find an even mediocre actor to fill that role, means more chance of a well-meaning casting director coming back to you and asking if there’s any chance of crossing out the word ‘wheelchair’ and perhaps writing ‘walking-stick’ instead.
As an aside and as an example of this, I was once part of a project with a very limited budget where we (the writers) had specified one of the actors was to be a black woman in her early twenties. I sat in on much of the casting and we couldn’t find any black women in that age range who could act.
Undoubtedly, part of the problem was the expenses-only, deferred nature of the project. It’s not that there aren’t any good black female actors, but the proportion who are prepared to work for peanuts is as close to zero as makes no odds. The great are snapped up very quickly, because they stand out. The new are harder to find because they are few and far between. I’ve never sat in on casting for a character with a disability, but (rightly or wrongly) I assume the same is true.
Obviously this is a cyclical problem: the less roles written for certain types of actors means less of those types of actors can get work, which means less of them enter into the profession or more of them give up faster, which means the casting pool gets smaller, which means less roles written for them … and so on …
Actually, to be honest, if I wrote a wheelchair user into a script, the chances are they’d cast an able-bodied actor and put them in a wheelchair. This would fulfil the ‘represent more disabilities on screen’ side of the argument, but not the ‘give actors with disabilities more work’ side.
I was thinking all this through last night when I realised what I was doing. I was using the wheelchair to represent disability. Most people with disabilities don’t use wheelchairs.
In fact, whereas 24% of the population have a disability, less than 2% of the population use wheelchairs.
Adding wheelchairs to a script doesn’t help redress the balance and represent people with disabilities, it represents wheelchair users.
And here’s an odd problem – we lump all the people of the UK who have a disability under the heading ‘disabled’ and then talk about representing them on screen; but what does that actually mean?
Where does this 24% figure come from? Or rather, who are the people who make up that statistic?
Does that include people with impaired vision? If so, how do you represent them on screen? Do they feel they need representing? I’m not just talking about blind people here, what about people who have limited vision or can only see out of one eye? I found out recently my barber has a glass eye. I’ve spoken to him for years without noticing. I even wrote him into a script because I thought he was interesting; but at that point I didn’t know he had a vision impairment, so neither did the character. If I’d known, it wouldn’t have made any difference – I’d still have written him the same way.
Does that 24% include people with hearing difficulties? Or are they not classed as disabled?
What about the sizeable percentage of people who have an invisible disability? Jack Thorne was on that panel, he has Cholinergic Urticaria – there’s no way you could know that unless he told you. It’s a very specific condition to portray on screen, you couldn’t just give it to a character as an afterthought, you’d have to incorporate it into scenes properly.
Would a person who has Cholinergic Urticaria feel ‘represented’ if they saw a drama with an actor in a wheelchair? Or an actor with learning difficulties? Or impaired vision?
My point is, whereas you can easily represent a race or a gender or a sexuality, it’s much harder to represent ‘disability’ when taken as a blanket term. The obvious mental equation is disability=wheelchair; but, as is so often the case, the obvious is wrong.
I understand the point of representing disability on screen. I understand the ‘normalising’ power of TV and film – “Oh look, they’re just like us. In fact, there’s no them, there’s just a bigger ‘us’ than I previously thought.”
If all you ever see are stories about people leading tricky lives because of their disability then it gives everyone an insight into someone else’s life … but does it do anything to reduce prejudice beyond the initial ripple of sympathy? If random people in scripts have a disability and it’s not dwelt on as anything other than something some people have, is that better at slowly changing public opinion?
I can’t help but feel casting directors have more power when it comes to representing people with disabilities than writers and that disability-blind casting is the way to go. I’m fairly certain I can include at least one form of disability in every script from now on … but I’m equally certain that character will either be ‘cured’ during production or end up being played by an able-bodied actor.
Personally, I don’t really know how to approach this. It’s a matter I intend to think more about from now on; but I don’t have any definitive or clear thoughts on the best way forward.
A couple of interesting sites for further reading:
And the Code of the Freaks documentary again, for anyone who hasn’t seen it: