There has been a debate going on within the disability community for many years now. Should only actors with disabilities play the roles of characters with disabilities or is it okay if actors without disabilities play the role of someone experiencing a disabling condition? And I can kind of see both sides. Obviously, an actor who has the same experience as the character being portrayed is going to bring that experience to the role. But should some actor be denied a role that might be the pinnacle of their career because he or she does not have a disability? Somehow that doesn’t sit quite right with me either. To me, part of acting is making an audience believe something that is not true about the actor in real life. But the debate goes on…
Although I don’t often admit it publicly, my inner nerd loves this time of year. Not just because the weather is warming up and I can see a glimpse of spring when I look into the future, but because the year’s television season is in full swing and there are some good shows to watch on Hulu in the evenings. (I gave up cable many years ago.) In its second season, Speechless is a particular favorite. A family’s oldest son is affected by cerebral palsy, and the show explores the many of those dynamics and their effect on every member of the family and the family as a whole. The cast does so rather brilliantly. Read more about that here. Another surprise this season is The Good Doctor. The character of Dr. Shaun Murphy is a medical resident who has autism and savant tendencies. He also faces real-life challenges and frustrations that would make sense for anyone experiencing those issues.
I’m always a little skeptical when mainstream media includes a character with a disability. Will the whole thing be as cheesy as some oversized nachos? Will the character ooze pity to the point that Tiny Tim has to wear galoshes? Most of the time, in my opinion, when a disability has been represented in the media, the storyline comes from a place of pity instead of power, and that is why I have often watched with low expectations and remained unimpressed. Speechless and The Good Doctor have proven me wrong. Because I like both the shows, I have spent some time thinking about what makes them so successful, and I have come to the conclusion that they do a good job of being authentic. J.J. Demeo makes no secret of the fact that he hates inspiration porn and Dr. Shaun Murphy had an epic meltdown when he felt like other people were trying to make decisions for him.
The thing is that Micah Fowler, who plays J.J. DeMeo on Speechless actually has cerebral palsy and Freddie Highmore, who plays Dr. Shaun Murphy on the Good Doctor is not affected by disability.
Those facts made me think about this debate within the disability community in a new way.
Can actors with disabilities blow people away with their acting skills and do amazing things in character? There is no question. Micah Fowler does that week after week and I don’t think he will stop no matter how many seasons that Speechless remains on the air. I’ve always appreciated the “nitty gritty this is the real stuff of disability ” issues that Speechless brings to the table. I have a feeling that I always will. In my soul, I appreciate that J.J. always calls it like he sees it, even though his character is nonverbal.
Can actors without disabilities, when they are in character, make that character believable enough that the audience thinks that the disability is genuine? When Dr. Shaun Murphy had a meltdown at the end of the midseason finale on the Good Doctor because he felt like other people were trying to control his life, I was sobbing at the end of the scene. The helplessness, the frustration, the “Can’t I make you understand?” feelings were all too real for me because I have experienced them so many times before. There is even a weird sense of betrayal when other people do things for you that you never asked them to do because they “think it is best.” Even though most times people who do that kind of thing do so with good intentions, the dignity they take away can far outweigh the good they were intending. Freddie Highmore’s acting was outstanding when he played that scene perfectly. Every drop of that conflicted emotion came through.
Should only actors with disabilities play characters with disabilities? I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question. What I do know is this. These days disability is portrayed in mainstream media more than it ever has been before. That is a good thing that I believe should continue. The media is not required to represent disability. When writers and producers choose to do so, I think the disability community should support the effort, no matter what disability the actor may or may not have.
Because as long as disability is in the spotlight and not the shadows, giving people a reason to talk about it instead of pushing it aside, I call that a win.