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> > > To Wheel Or Not To Wheel? Disabled Characters in Theatre & Television

There is still a preponderance for non-disabled actors in theatre and television to 'crip up' for disabled roles. Mik Scarlet looks at the slow emergence of disabled actors within mainstream representation and discusses the question of a disabled actor playing a character who has a different impairment to their own?

photo of actor Mik Scarlet from the set of a pilot of Inmates

Photo of Mik Scarlet from the television pilot of Inmates, Alan Sutherland’s comedy

From my earliest memories of watching drama, I remember disabled characters. My first memory is of Commander Samuel Stone, the hoverchair using boss of Troy Tempest in Gerry Anderson's Stringray. While the Commander was a puppet in a kid's TV show, disabled people also featured in adult drama. 

Raymond Burr gave us Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside and here in the UK Roger Tonye played Sandy Richardson in the soap Crossroads. While all these characters were wheelchair users, they were all played by non-disabled actors, although Roger Tonye became disabled during the 15 years that he played Sandy. 

Ever since my childhood back in the 1970's disabled characters have featured on stage and screen. I even played a few myself, appearing in Brookside, The Bill and 2.4 Children among others. A major moment in the portrayal of disabled people in UK soaps was the casting of Julie Fernandez as Nessa Lockhead in the BBC's Eldorado in the 1990’s, marking the casting of a disabled actor in a feature role. Since then the numbers of disabled actors working with the mainstream of the dramatic arts have increased steadily. 

However while the numbers of disabled talent breaking through has grown, the majority of disabled characters are continued to be played by non-disabled actors. I won't try to list them as I just don't have the space, but we all have personal favourites. I say favourites, but I don't mean in a good way as most of the disabled community views the casting of non-disabled actors to play disabled characters as the easiest route to untruthful portrayal and unrealistic story lines. 

However it is understood within the industry to be a sure fire route to being acclaimed as a talented actor and even to gain those longed for awards. So however much disabled people complain, we still see non-disabled actors ready to ‘crip up’. This practice also means that the wealth of disabled talent out there find it even harder to gain employment.

After years of complaining and campaigning things are changing. While we still see non-disabled actors playing disabled, a recent example being the BBC's Big School using a sighted actor to play a visually impaired character, we are seeing a growth in opportunities for disabled acting talent to shine. 

Driven by a desire to be more representative the dramatic arts are also embracing the concept of ‘inclusive casting’. This is where disabled actors are cast to play any role, whether it calls for an impairment or not. Liz Carr playing Clarissa Mullery in the BBC's long running crime drama Silent Witness is a high profile example of this, as none of the scripts so far have mentioned disability other than in passing. 

An issue that is rearing its head now that there is a real commitment to use more disabled acting talent is "is it OK to use a disabled actor to play a character who has a different impairment to the own?". Recently I auditioned for the part of a character who had Motor Neurone Disease and before I got to BBC Elstree do strut my stuff, I was overcome with the feeling that I should not be trying out for this job. 

While I am a disabled actor, I do not have MND and I would also say I do not look like someone who does. With my typical career suicide I discussed this issue with the casting director, and it transpired they did not choose me for the role. I still don't know if the actor they did go with had MND, although it was made clear they would only cast a disabled actor. If the actor they did pick did not have MND is that a good thing, with a disabled actor getting work, or is it a just another form of ‘cripping up’? It's a question most disabled people have yet to consider. 

I don't know myself, but I do know I did feel uncomfortable with the idea of playing an impairment I have little experience of, yet I really can't play a character that could walk. If wheelchair-using actors don't get to play the roles that call for a wheelchair-user then they won't have much of career. Whether that role went to a non-disabled actor or a disabled actor, if they play a wheelchair-user but do not actually use one themselves is there any difference? Or should we rejoice that disabled talent is getting the break they so rightly deserve? 

I also worry that by casting disabled actors to play against their impairment we might be giving a green light to non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’, as it is driven by this attitude that it is the talent that counts. I am sure that casting a black actor to play an obviously Asian character would not be received favourably, so why should it be okay when casting for a disabled role?

Disabled actor Kiruna Stamell is superb in the National Theatre's production of Great Britain, and she proves that disabled actors can hold their own in a strong cast of non-disabled actors. I know that anyone seeing Ms Stamell's performance will come away no longer believing the stereotype held by so many in the industry that there isn't enough talented disabled actors out there. Sadly I understand that Ms. Stamell’s understudy is not disabled, even though that position is the key route for new actors to gain experience. If disabled talent does not get those lesser roles how can the talent pool ever grow?

We are at a crossroads around the portrayal of disability in drama, both around how it is shown and by whom, and it is vital that we point the industry in the right direction as at the minute they are keen to work with us to get it right. If we miss this chance it may be many years before the pendulum of fashion that causes the desire for these kind of changes swings in our favour again. 

It's an important issue and one that will shape the portrayal of disability and disabled people for many years to come. I wonder, what do you think?

Simon Startin is a freelance theatre-maker and activist of some twenty years standing. Please click on this link to read about his moves to stir the National Theatre and the RSC to take action in supporting the work of disabled actors.