Don’t Play Me, Pay Me – Campaigning for disabled actors

Something interesting has been happening on our TV screens – something which has made some people uncomfortable, some empowered, some just plain curious and lots entertained.

The series in question features characters which seem new and exciting, and no, I'm not talking about the return of Doctor Who here, but about Cast Offs, the Channel 4 drama in which all six leading actors are disabled.

If the basic premise of the show is perhaps not the most original (the six characters have been sent to a remote island for a fictional reality show) then the casting of genuinely disabled actors certainly is. For the issue is not just that there are very few disabled parts being written for mainstream media, but that when disabled characters are featured they are too often portrayed by able-bodied actors ‘putting on' the disability.

A new campaign, entitled Don't Play Me, Pay Me, has called for this to be seen as akin to blacking up, and for only disabled actors to be cast in disabled parts. The campaign is run by Nicky Clark, whose daughter Lizzy has Aspergers Syndrome, and appeared in Dustbin Baby in 2008 playing a character with the same condition. The experience of raising a disabled child inspired Clark to fight for an increase in casting disabled actors – as she says, “The reality is that there are over 8 million people in this country with a disability but you would never know that by switching on the TV or opening a magazine”.

So why do directors choose able-bodied actors over those with the appropriate disability? It can't be lack of available talent

This is an interesting point – we no longer readily accept casting actors of the wrong race or ethnicity in a role, but an actor assuming a disability generally raises no questions, as there seems to be a feeling that this is allowable, and in some cases even preferable – Hollywood actors looking for an Oscar nomination, for example, have frequently been known to choose disabled characters for their emotive potential. It is rather telling that of the five people who have won Oscars for playing a disabled character, only one of them was actually disabled – the deaf actress Marlee Matlin.

So why do directors choose able-bodied actors over those with the appropriate disability? It can't be lack of available talent – there
are 235 disabled actors registered with Equity, and many more who aren't registered, as well as agencies and theatre groups specifically for disabled actors.

Clark explains; “There is fear and trepidation. Mainly I think because no-one wants to offend. Also there is a misconception that disabled actors will need very high levels of one-to-one support.” Breaking down these misconceptions is an important part of the Don't Play Me, Pay Me campaign. Clark is also working with drama schools to open up their doors to disabled applicants to ensure that aspiring disabled actors can get the training and support they need to embark on an acting career.

Clark is not fighting alone – over the past year the BBC have been working to increase diversity on screen. The BBC Talent Alert is an
initiative to find new disabled talent, with the aim of having more disabled actors on mainstream television. One of the people behind the scheme is Sarah Hughes, who has been scouting out new disabled talent for several months. “We had a lot of meetings about diversity last year within the Entertainment department,” she says. “And we were asked if we had any ideas on ways of reflecting modern Britain more accurately on screen, and I thought, since I was already working part time as a casting director in the Entertainment Department, that I could spend one extra day per week really focussing on actors with a disability in the hopes of building up much more knowledge about who was ‘out there'.

“Luckily Kate Rowland, who is Creative Director of New Writing here and has a huge commitment to diversity, thought it was a good idea and has funded me to do the work. As well as meeting a lot of people in London I've been to Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester to see who's around!”

If disabled people were featured in all roles that weren't disability specific then it would remove all the barriers.

Hundreds of actors have been seen through Talent Alert, and it shows real commitment from the BBC. Asked whether the BBC has a specific policy when it comes to disabled casting, Hughes explains that “We would like to do more casting of disabled actors in ANY part whether that character is stated specifically to be disabled or not. Generally, I think it is felt to be very much preferable to use an actor with a disability rather than a non-disabled actor to play a “disabled” part.”

Hughes raises something interesting here – why are disabled people so rarely cast in parts which are not specifically disabled? There is a curious sort of double standards here – able-bodied people are allowed to play disabled, but the disabled are not allowed to play ‘normal' parts.

Clark points out that “If disabled people were featured in all roles that weren't disability specific then it would remove all the barriers.”

But is an entirely integrated industry too much to hope for? Personally I don't see why not – if we can have ‘colourblind-casting', then why not ‘disability blind-casting' too? Whilst there are always going to be limitations to what people with certain disabilities can physically do, the majority of mainstream parts could easily be played by a disabled actor if only directors will have the courage to cast them.

Being deaf myself I have no intention of only ever playing deaf characters – a disability is not an identity, and Clark argues that it should have no more bearing on casting than eye-colour. It is perhaps slightly easier for disabled actors to succeed in theatre, as people are more ready to suspend disbelief when it comes to something live, but with campaigns like Talent Alert and Don't Play Me, Pay Me disabled actors can at least be assured that their corner is being fought.

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