Tag Archives: disabled actors

Great to see disability represented at the Oscars, but how far do we still have to go?

Last night, the Oscars results showed that we are moving forward when it comes to representation of disability in film. The Shape of Water – a film featuring a disabled character and uses sign language – won best film (although a disabled actor playing her would have been even better). The Silent Child – which stars a six-year-old deaf British actress and tells the story of her struggle to communicate in a hearing world, won best live action short film.

In this blog, Max Dean, a film lover and writer, reflects on the history of disability in film.

As a fan of horror films, I realise that the representation of disability in this particular genre are, largely quite negative; the most recent and controversial case being M Night Shyamalan’s Split from last year starring James McAvoy.

Before and after the release professionals with patients of dissociative identity disorder (DID) expressed understandable concern over the stigma that the film could place with those living with the condition. Yet, just like Psycho’s portrayal of a real-life mental-health condition, the portrayal of DID in Split is nonsense. People with DID are no more prone to violence than any non-DID person.

Disability in historical cinema

In contrast, one of my favourite films of all time; James Whales’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), has arguably, perhaps one of the most touching scenes with a disabled character in the history of cinema. To me, it perfectly captures the loneliness that those in the disabled community can face due to misunderstanding across our society and its preconceived perceptions.

In this sequence our main character, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ comes across an older man with blindness who is living on his own in the woods, shunned by the villagers we see in other scenes who chase the ‘monster’ across the countryside. He befriends our main character. They provide each other with the one thing each has wished for; a friend and companion. The ‘monster’ himself is similarly treated as a monster due to his appearance and supposedly limited and baby like intellect. It is only when villagers come into his home and confront them both that he loses his friend.

In this context, disability is rather refreshingly, seen as a virtue and played in a positive and indeed, very humane light.

Disabled people must be given a genuine voice

A more recent film which has comparable character arcs in its story to the Bride of Frankenstein is The Shape of Water. Due to Sally Hawkins’ excellent performance this has won plaudits as a breakthrough in the cinematic presentation of disabled characters. With this however, it also raises the question of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters.

To show that cinema really embraces disabled people as equals, the film industry must therefore give disabled people a genuine voice. This can be achieved by not only giving more roles to disabled actors but the directors chair itself. Yes, these roles can be sympathetic, but they also must be truly empowered characters.

That would be a truer sign than any, that, we as a society have truly changed to embrace disability and recognised the worth of everyone in it.

What are your thoughts on this year’s Oscar winners? Start a discussion on our online community.

Why tonight’s Silent Witness story is just what the industry needs

Disabled people and their stories rarely appear on TV or in films. Then, when they do, non-disabled actors are often cast to play the roles. That’s why we’re so excited about the latest Silent Witness story which will be broadcast on BBC One tonight and tomorrow.

The story – One Day – is told across two episodes and tells the story of Toby and Serena who are both disabled. They’re played by actor Toby Sams-Friedman and Rosie Jones, a brilliant comedian in her first acting role.

The story is gripping and emotional and while it’s billed as a story about hate crime, it also shines a light on a variety of issues that disabled people face, not to mention the seeming lack of urgency when it comes to addressing those issues. It also features an incredible performance from Liz Carr, a regular on the show.

Our helpline team were consulted on the script and on Tuesday, we were lucky enough to attend a screening of the episodes at BAFTA. In the Question and Answers that followed, we heard from Tim Prager who wrote the episode and actor Liz Carr. Afterwards we also chatted to Rosie Jones, who plays Serena in the episodes. Here’s what they had to say.

Rosie Jones:

“I wanted to do it justice for all the disabled people in that situation”

I come from quite a higgledy-piggledy background because I actually started behind the camera working in comedy and entertainment. Then I decided to do stand-up comedy, and along with that comes acting. I went for this role and somehow with no acting experience, I got it! So yeah, it’s my first acting job but I really enjoyed it.

The story is incredible, it’s hard going and it tackled a lot of tough subjects. I was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But actually, I wanted to do it justice for all the disabled people in that situation. It’s incredibly important to tell this story, we need to make people more aware. And it’s so important that disabled actors are playing the roles. You can get the best actors but they don’t know what it’s like to be disabled. I do and hopefully I bring something to the role.

A women stands in a doorway looking worried
Rosie Jones, as Serena, in the first episode of One Day

Tim Prager, writer: On hiring disabled actors

“Just do it”.

I’ve known Toby since he was a little boy, I’ve watched him grow up, so it was easy for me to write that character. I have a son with cerebral palsy so it was easy for me to write Serena. What I was hoping to do with it, is to demonstrate that there is a place for all of us. That’s it.

There needs to be a will to tell stories about all sorts of people. Liz has been on the show for 6 years. The critical issue for me was that she was in it and she was a regular in it. There will always be a disabled character, whether [the story] is about disability or not. We’ll just put them in it because they can do other jobs.

[As a writer already in the industry], I’ve laid down the gauntlet and said I’ll work with disabled writers and bring them up to a technical skill level that makes them available to work on mainstream shows. And that’s what needs to happen, we need to get to a place where [all] people write all the shows that people watch.

It comes down to people saying, okay enough, let’s do it, let’s do it now.

Liz Carr, who plays Clarissa in the series:

“You’ve got the right people telling the story for a change”

It was so important [to do this story] because I don’t think that, other than on something like Panorama, I don’t know that we’ve seen some of these things on TV before.

These episodes are expressed as being about disability hate crime and really, they’re about the value we place on another human being.

Tim, comes at it from a place of experience as do we, as disabled actors. When we say ‘we should have better representation on TV’ it gets a bit boring – these episodes show why. And you’ve got the right people telling the story for a change.

There are lots of disabled people, people who championed this kind of episode and it’s a celebration. I guess the issue is, there’s so much to be done and we want it done now, I’m so impatient. Disabled actors have got to get more experience so we get there.

The performances across the board in this episode are stunning. The more we do it, the more people who work with us realise that this isn’t so bad.

Silent Witness One Day will be on BBC One at 9pm tonight – Monday 29 January – and tomorrow.