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Nondisabled People Should Not Lead Discussions on Ableism

by Editor
A close up of Richard III with text over top that reads Richard III and Disabled Mimicry

No, nondisabled people, you should not be leading the discussion about whether something in the theatre is ableist or not. FULL STOP.

I have a pet peeve. It’s one I’ve had for at least two decades. I LOATHE when nondisabled people speak FOR disabled people – or worse for the disabled community. I do. 

I had to learn some years ago that I can’t talk for the community. I can’t. All I can do is talk from a place where I have studied disability, representation, and media to the point where I am essentially an expert on the topic.

That means I can speak about a topic relating to disability with factual knowledge and experience, but it doesn’t mean I can speak for the entire community. I can make generalizations about how media affects the entire community, but I cannot make assertions about how the entire community feels about such media.

Finding this nuance has been a huge part of my work. 

I can accurately describe the harm that comes from nondisabled actors playing disabled roles, for example. This doesn’t mean that everybody in the disabled community feels the same way about this. However, I can say that I do have a better understanding of the repercussions merely because of the extensive work I’ve done.

How disabled people feel about disability representation depends on a few different factors, which lead to differing opinions about such representation.

1. We don’t have a lot of representation

What this means is that what we have is what we get, and sometimes that means that we cling to that because it’s all we have. Most of our representation is problematic so that means that we can either find something relatable in problematic representation or have nothing at all. The lack of representation means if we don’t accept what is there we don’t get represented and that’s a lonely place to be.

2. Most don’t understand the repercussions

If you look at media and don’t understand that that has a direct correlation to how disabled people are treated then you may not care that harmful media is being made. The number one misconception people have when they talk to me about disability and media is the misconception that representation that is harmful doesn’t actually have real-world consequences.

We look to the media to better understand representation for communities we don’t understand personally. This is how society forms opinions and ideas about marginalized communities, so there is a responsibility that most creators don’t understand, to do and be better.

3. Most representation comes from a place of fear

Most creators are nondisabled, so they are including disability in their media that is coming from a place of fear. We hear it all the time. What is the worst thing that could ever happen to you? A lot of people say to become disabled. Honestly, a lot of us that are disabled find that a weird answer, but if you don’t understand what it’s like to be disabled of course you are going to be afraid. The media clearly shows that being disabled is awful (again going back to representation being inaccurate and harming people – it harms potentially disabled people by making them afraid of the future as a disabled person).

So, I’m disappointed as I am seeing conversations about the recent debut of Richard III at The Globe.

In an unconventional production of Richard, artistic director at The Globe, Michelle Terry decided to cast herself. Richard is a behemoth of a role and of course she wanted to take on that “challenge.” That being said, that’s all disabled roles are to nondisabled actors – “a challenge they think will win them an award, praise, accolades, money.”

But disabled lives and disabled experiences are not simply “challenges.” For some of us, our disabilities are integrated parts of our identities. Not everybody wants to be seen as disabled or identifies as disabled, but a lot of us cannot separate our disability from other aspects of our lives.

For example, I constantly have to think about accessibility whether I want to or not because the world is not accessible to me. In that way, my disability is intrinsically linked with thoughts about how I get around the world. What am I going to do if I leave my house? I have to consider my disability. I just don’t have a choice.

Nondisabled actors have the ability to put on and take off a supposed disability, but are they really putting on the disability if they don’t understand what it’s like to be disabled? 

I don’t believe they are. I don’t believe they are capable of understanding until they actually become disabled themselves, which is inevitable for most people at some point in their lives. Just not at this current point.

I find it interesting that this is a production of Richard III. I’m a former actor and I’ve performed as Richard multiple times when I was in acting school.

I started acting at 10. I mostly did musicals and opera throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school. I was a trained singer, and apparently pretty good because a lot of directors would look past my disability and cast me in any role that made sense for me.

I was the narrator in Joseph. I was the Reverend, mother of the love interest, in Arsenic and Old Lace. I was Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz. Roles like that.

When I first went to college I had a few professors that continued to let me play any role. I was Antigone in Antigone, for example, and I feel I did a great job.

But sometime during college, my professors started noticing that I was disabled. Well, they knew, but they became less willing to work with me, and more willing to dismiss me. This is when I started only receiving “disabled roles.”

It started with my teacher assigning me the role of Tiresias the Blind seer. My teacher did not find it amusing when I pointed out that it would be interesting for me to be blind and drive my wheelchair without some form of assistance. I knew a couple disabled people who use wheelchairs who are also blind and they usually needed help and guidance.

My professors didn’t understand these things or that not all disabilities are the same. Some disabilities conflict with one another. Just because someone has one disability doesn’t mean they can play a character with another disability, but that did not stop my professors.

Then, I started getting cast in ableist shows that featured disabled people. I was given the Julie Andrews’ role in Duet for One, for example. I was also still too young to understand that this was both ableist, and creating harm for both myself and other disabled people by being in these performances.

The one though, that I really wanted, was Richard III and lo and behold I was cast as Richard for my Shakespeare class at University of Michigan – Flint. Richard is such a meaty role when it comes to Shakespeare. I enjoyed playing sinister, in the opening scenes with Lady Anne.

It was the one opportunity I really got to shine. It also was a reminder that these are the kind of parts I was allowed to play.. Gone were the days when I was young enough that people didn’t care that I was disabled, so I could get away with playing a nondisabled lead character. If I wanted to be a lead I had to be a character like Richard.

This story is not unique to me as a disabled performer. I’ve heard something similar from other disabled actors. Being relegated to the “disabled roles.”

So if those the theater recognize Richard as a disabled role, why is a nondisabled person playing such a character?

Shakespeare has always been ripe for reinvention. Just look at what Baz did to Shakespeare in the 90s. An entire generation enthusiastically reintroduced themselves to Shakespeare because of that film. So, when Michelle Terry thought they could make something new, she thought about making Richard a woman.

Gender swapping is a huge huge deal in the Shakespeare universe. It’s a nod to Shakespeare himself and the many characters that pretend to be female or male for various reasons (usually some kind of unintended comedic situation). So, making Richard a woman isn’t out of the box. But where Michelle went wrong was lack of imagination. Personally, I think it’s egregious to cast yourself. It seems very interesting is the nicest way I can say it. In truth it seems a bit arrogant.

But there is at least one well-known female disabled actress who could pull off Richard with aplomb… The incredibly talented Liz Carr. If you’re going to do something inspired and make Richard disabled make him a disabled woman. That’s the subversive content we want to see. That’s the subversive content we need.

The question should not be about whether Richard should be played by a woman or not. That shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion. Shakespeare has played with gender so much at this point gender swapping should not matter. End of discussion.

But to give a nondisabled character one of the few roles that disabled actors are ALLOWED to play is EGREGIOUSLY wrong. We don’t get opportunities, Michelle. You took a role away from someone who deserved it.

Nondisabled people can never play disabled people accurately. They can’t. It always ends up harming disabled people and once again this casting and this discussion is doing nothing more than dragging down the disabled community. It’s dragging down a group of people that don’t get to be anyone in theater or media.

Until disabled people start demanding our inclusion, I fear this will not change. We must say that we will not accept this casting. We must say that these actors ARE causing disabled people harm and they need to stop.

Only then will we start seeing disabled people included in casting. We are to the point where we must demand inclusion. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And as for Richard… I killed it. Only a disabled person could do the role justice. Anything else is just disabled mimicry.

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