Disabled Actors Playing Disabled Characters? What a Novel Idea!

It’s easy to criticize Hollywood decision-makers for how often they take the easy way out, whether it’s putting white Englishmen in their ancient Egyptian epics or overloading films with men and including one woman. But where they often get a litany of passes is the casting of able-bodied actors to play disabled characters. I complain about it every time the calendar turns to award season, so I’ve already started my yearly venting on Twitter.

But, again, it’s too simple just to criticize. What about the times Hollywood gets it right and actually casts disabled people to play disabled characters? It’s not nearly as common as it should be, but it happens. Leveling the playing field can do a lot toward helping disabled representation achieve parity and promote a more nuanced look at people different from the average Joe.

I’m often asked why movies lack disabled actors. The answers are myriad but what it boils down to is good old-fashioned shortsightedness. William H. Macy said in the 2013 documentary CinemAbility that he didn’t include disabled people in a script he wrote because his mind never even thought to go there. Writing 101’s main rule is “write what you know,” and those holding the pens — whether it be for the script or signing the contracts — are, more often than not, able-bodied.

Criticisms like this are no different than those lobbed at directors for whitewashing a feature, and yet I’m often given a slew of excuses about studios’ avoidance of disabled representation. The same excuses are used to justify a lack of diversity in race or gender — “The studio obviously wanted a name,” “The need for awards is too high.” The one I hear most often is “Well, maybe there weren’t any disabled actors who auditioned.” Outside of being laughably stupid, comments like these go back to my initial critique: if you aren’t taking the time to learn about disabled actors, you’re ignoring a key facet of Hollywood. There are numerous disabled actors working in Hollywood, and it’s unfortunate I can’t spotlight all of them. But let’s look at a few prominent stars who further the discussion of the proper usage of disability.

The most recent example is Edgar Wright’s casting of CJ Jones as Ansel Elgort’s deaf foster father, Joe, in Baby Driver. Deaf actors aren’t rare; actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, and young actress Aryana Engineer captured attention in the 2009 horror film Orphan. But both of those movies highlighted the character’s disability for crucial plot points. With Jones and the character of Joe, his deafness isn’t what sells the story, it’s what slyly dominates it. Wipe away the car chases, the heist atmosphere, and the soundtrack, and you have the story of how integral sound and communication are and what happens when those are removed. Baby and Joe speak strictly in sign language. Joe “listens” to music via the speaker vibrations. These moments hold more resonance in the film than Baby’s tinnitus, which tends to fall more into the gimmicky presentation of disability to utilize a hip soundtrack.

With Joe, he’s supportive but not a doormat; he knows exactly what Baby is doing, and later politely encourages him to get off his ass and find a real job. (Spoilers follow.) And though Joe is often used as a pawn to threaten Baby, he makes it through to the end. Honestly, that’s the most surprising element of how Wright uses disability, letting the character exist when all is said and done. (When I praised Jones and the character on Twitter I received comments about how happy people were that he didn’t die!) Too often disabled characters are the victims whose death is inevitable; the Tiny Tim meant to galvanize the protagonist into action. Baby wants to protect Joe, but doesn’t need the added motivation of avenging a dead loved one to become the hero. He wants to protect the people in his life because he loves them, Joe included. Joe isn’t a gimmicky character; he’s a man who exists and is allowed to have a life.

If it’s rare to see disabled actors, it’s rarer to see them live a life that passes for normal like Joe does. Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) remains one of my favorite examples of how vital disabled actors are to accurately portraying disabled characters. Director William Wyler discovered Russell in an Army training video about disabled soldiers. Russell gave his own perspective on the way his character would respond to certain events, and also provided tips on how other servicemen would treat him in real-life situations. Case in point, Dana Andrews and Fredric March’s characters make sure to grip Homer by his wrist during a handshake, as opposed to the hooks he has for hands. This would fly over the heads of most able-bodied audiences, but to those who have prostheses, especially coming out of WWII, it’s an attempt to present something authentic and to understand them as humans.

Homer is later shown struggling to acclimate to daily life and conform to a world that often isn’t accessible. He struggles with self-doubt and worries his girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will find him to be a burden. All of these aren’t just relatable to disabled people, but take on an added poignancy; it’s easy to see that Russell himself felt those feelings. Homer never contemplates ending his life and is even allowed to have a shot at romance — don’t get me started at how rare it is to see disabled people be sexual.

But like the majority of disabled films today, Hollywood tends to focus on the sudden onset of disability, as opposed to those disabled by birth. Russell and Susan Peters, one of the few actresses of the studio era to work after being disabled in a hunting accident, worked in films to show the struggles of disability as it relates to able-bodied people (in Russell’s case) or the horrors of being disabled in general (such as with Peters, whose 1948 film Sign of the Ram shows disabled people as controlling and scheming). Hollywood wants to cater to the widest audience possible, and this need to relate is often manifested by showing disability as something to fear. It’s why, once again, CJ Jones in Baby Driver is almost unique. There’s nothing to fear about him or his condition; it’s a facet of his life that he and Baby deal with, seemingly well before the advent of crime that wracks the film.

Oddly enough, the TV landscape is becoming more progressive when it comes to disabilities, with ABC’s Speechless revolving around a family with a disabled child, and past examples like Breaking Bad having a disabled actor in a supporting role. Disabled actors exist. It is simply up to Hollywood to utilize them.

Kristen Lopez drives babies in Sacramento.