Head to Head: People without disabilities should not act as people with disabilities

Rory Plunkett

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Hollywood and the media have never granted people with disabilities the same right to self-representation onscreen that we demand for other groups who struggle for social equality. Disabled roles should only be for disabled performers, just like Black roles should only be for Black people, and not a person in blackface.

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People without disabilities do not have any business acting as disabled characters.

Lucy Rodgers from BBC News says that having disabled characters is often a way to get nominated for awards. Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for his role as Christy Brown, an Irish writer who was born with cerebral palsy. Dustin Hoffman won best actor for his portrayal in “Rain Man.”

Disabled actors are having their opportunities for telling their own stories restricted because able-bodied people are being cast instead. 

“Breaking Bad” star RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, said: “There’s always someone better looking or with a better disability,” when it comes to securing a job in acting industry.

Disabled actors are having their opportunities for telling their own stories restricted because able-bodied people are being cast instead. 

Actors with disabilities are often not even given the chance to audition for a role over people without disabilities. Adam Pearson, an actor, was not even given an audition for the role of Joseph Merrick in the remake of “The Elephant Man,” even though Pearson has the exact same condition Merrick suffered from. When non-disabled actors play roles of people with disabilities, it restricts the opportunities and self-representation people with disabilities have the right to perform.

White people putting on blackface was once accepted, and is now rightly considered horrendously offensive. It was not only extremely disrespectful, but the actors in blackface only mimicked stereotypes that were prescribed onto Black people. The same thing happens today when able-bodied actors are the only ones playing people with disabilities. 

People without disabilities can only act so well. They will never be able to fully portray the true story of a person with disabilities. It only makes logical sense that a role of an autistic man should be played by an autistic man, or a role of a woman who uses a wheelchair should be played by a women who uses a wheelchair.

My colleague Ethan Vassar is not considering the right to self-representation that people with disabilities deserve, and the logic of casting for a disabled role. Vassar argues that the job should go to the most qualified person, and I agree. Although Dustin Hoffman is a great actor, how did “Rain Man” affect people with autism spectrum disorder?

Chris Bonnello, autism advocate of Autistic Not Weird, who has Asperger’s syndrome said: “Many say that ‘Rain Man’ is now damaging to autism awareness, and I see their point.” That movie gave its audience the unrealistic expectation that all people with autism are some kind of savant, which is not true at all.

When you think about it, how can anyone without disabilities know what an accurate portrayal of a person with disabilities looks like when they have never experienced that life? Just like a white person can’t fully comprehend the experience of a person of color; how a straight person can’t know what a member of the LGBTQ community’s experience is like, or how a man can’t know what a woman’s life is like.

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You can’t genuinely tell a story if it isn’t your own. The most qualified person for a role of a person with disabilities should be an actor who has that disability.

Rory Plunkett can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @roryswav