It’s an old cliche that if an actor wants to win an Oscar, he or she should consider playing a character with a disability.
And it’s not entirely unfounded advice: 61 actors have been nominated for playing a character with a disability and 27 have walked away winners. But only two of those actors actually had a disability-Marlee Matlin in “Children of a Lesser God” and Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
That’s just one of the things that needs to change, according to a group of entertainment industry professionals with disabilities including actors Danny Woodburn, “A Quiet Place’s” Millicent Simmonds and “Peanut Butter Falcon’s” Zack Gottsagen. They and other creatives with disabilities, from directors to VFX artists, spoke about the state of representation in front of and behind the camera in series of virtual panels organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that debuted Monday night. The panels, funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, coincides with the 30th anniversary year of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It would be really helpful to have a disabled (Disney) princess,” said actor and comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy.
Zayid noted that people with visible and invisible disabilities make up about 20% of the American population but a miniscule number of characters on television and in film.
“The message being sent out to disabled kids is you do not belong in this world,” Zayid said. “People with disabilities face enormous amounts of bullying, violence and discrimination. Positive images of disability can stop that.”
Part of that is casting actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. Simmonds, who is deaf, said she’s had to go up against non-disabled actors for disabled roles. She recalled that her “A Quiet Place” director John Krasinski had to fight to cast a deaf actor and that producers wanted someone who was hearing.
“Deaf roles should be played by deaf actors,” she said through an interpreter.
At times she’s even taken it a step forward to advocate for herself.
“I’m not above calling directors or producers and suggesting that they have a deaf actress for a particular role,” she said.
But another part of the equation is giving actors rich and nuanced storylines that go beyond the three they usually get: “’You can’t love me because I’m disabled,’ ‘heal me’ or ‘kill me,’” said Zayid.
Woodburn, who has dwarfism, remembers watching actors like Michael Dunn when he was young and seeing only stereotypes and tropes like the “sad little man” or the “devious little man” and storylines that were the same.
There is also the issue of working and how productions can be more accommodating to people with disabilities both on screen and behind the scenes. Many noted that they don’t want to ask for special accommodations.
Zayid remembered being unable to get into her trailer on the set of “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and basically had to ask a production assistant to help hoist her up.
“Adam Sandler saw and said, ‘What is happening? Make her trailer accessible!” I said I didn’t want to be high maintenance,” she said. “He said ‘look around, we’re in Hollywood.’”