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Dreaming of a Hollywood Ending for Actors With Disabilities (Guest Column)

Picture a world in which an actor with a disability wins an Academy Award. Sadly, that storyline remains no more than a Hollywood fantasy. Since Marlee Matlin’s win for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God in 1986, not a single self-identifying disabled actor has been represented at The Oscars.

In recent years, the #OscarsSoWhite trending hashtag campaign has shed light on the lack of diversity in the movie industry. Yet ahead of this year’s Oscars on Feb. 24, society’s definition of diversity all too often remains narrow and only encompasses race and ethnicity.

Ever since Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor in 1989 for playing a protagonist with autism in “Rain Man,” about half of the Best Actor winners have also portrayed people with disabilities or illnesses. Yet it’s alarming that Hollywood seems to greatly value stories of disabilities without actually employing actors, directors, storytellers, or technicians with disabilities.

Year in and year out, actors without disabilities are nominated for playing characters with disabilities, most recently Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water” and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” Meanwhile, according to a Ruderman Family Foundation study, 95 percent of television characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.

The Upside,” which casts Bryan Cranston as a quadriplegic millionaire, is the latest blockbuster capitalizing on stories of disability without casting a an actor with a disability to portray the character authentically.

This is a clear missed opportunity to promote inclusive casting and affirm that artists with disabilities will always be the expert of the disability experience. There are so many qualified actors with disabilities out there. Why didn’t “The Upside” choose to proactively advance diversity, a value that so many of us purport to cherish?

“The Upside” also exacerbates the trend of limited authentic representation of disability in media. The current prevailing narrative suggests the experience of disability is one of tragedy. But I, for one, have no interest in audiences seeing yet another picture which reinforces that idea.

The fact that I use a wheelchair is not something I must move past — it’s just another factor in my life. Further, the narrative of an ultra-wealthy man with a disability isn’t the reality of the majority of the population. To tell an authentic story about disabilities, why not represent a woman with a disability mothering a family or a person facing employment discrimination?

A major reason I’ve committed myself to an acting career is to create narratives that better reflect my experience as an empowered woman with a disability. This issue is highly personal for me, particularly as the first recipient of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s joint scholarship with the Yale School of Drama for actors with disabilities.

When you have a disability, auditions are much more challenging. I need to not only prove myself a skilled actor, but also break down assumptions of incapability that often accompany the image of disability — all in about 90 seconds.

When I went on my first auditions as a young actor, the auditors wouldn’t know what to do with me. They’d speak to me loudly or in a baby voice. One auditor called me “brave” for showing up in the rain, as if I weren’t professional like everyone else in the room. For castings in which films were overtly looking to increase their diversity, they would get confused as to why I auditioned as a white woman. It taught me that entertainment’s definition of diversity doesn’t include people with disabilities.

I grew up seeing disabilities like my own being portrayed on TV as abnormal — not like the normal life I had. Actors who played people with disabilities never seemed to portray normal feelings or aspects of life, like sexuality. I sought to change this narrative as an actor. However, empowering change is tricky in a media environment that doesn’t believe people with disabilities are skilled artists who can contribute to culture meaningfully.

My situation has improved tenfold since my Yale acceptance. I’m called into more audition rooms than I ever dreamed about. More broadly, I see much more being written in the media about Hollywood’s refusal to cast actors with disabilities. But this still doesn’t mean people with disabilities are booking the roles for which they’re auditioning.

As an actor, I’ve wanted others to see me for who I am. Every community should get to see themselves. I grew up seeing no images of empowered women with disabilities in media, so I internalized that if there wasn’t a place for me in fictional TV worlds, there was certainly no place for me in society. I act so that some young girl with a disability can see herself and know she’s perfectly fine in the body she has, and that her life has value.

Imagine a world where people of all abilities see a place for themselves. That would be a true Hollywood ending.

Jessy Yates is an actor with cerebral palsy who is currently studying at Yale School of Drama.

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