Disability is Not a Costume 

I am coming off a brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” a sort of Shakespeare showcase of linked historical plays. I am happy he did the performance; he did it well. What I am not happy about is that soon it will be put into the long history of abled actors donning disability like a costume, as if they can really draw upon direct experience.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is disturbing me about abled actors portraying disability. Is it the lack of direct experience? Is it the donning and doffing of disability like a regular Halloween costume? Is it the presumption that we actually disabled can really do that? Or is it that it seems like a version of a white person doing blackface? Maybe it’s as if we actual disabled are not good enough to provide our own voices. Why is that? If the mathematicians in “Hidden Figures” were played by white women in “black makeup,” would it not cause outrage due to the casting? Yet, because we are disabled, such outrageous assumptions like stupidity, incompetence and inability to act are foisted upon us, causing the “need” for abled actors to don disabilities like costumes, only to toss them off later. It’s a terrible thing to consider; that I’m not good enough to provide my own voice. Does anybody else want to feel this way?

Now, I can sense some people think I’m picking on Benedict Cumberbatch. That is not my aim. I just hope that he had at least one or more consultants who could put a sense of competence into his performance. I think he did; see, when his Richard III is on horseback or in battle, he is just as elegant and competent with the horse and sword as his brothers. It seems like light is breaking through, but I’m not so sure.

My aim is simply this: to help people to understand that, at the end of the day, real disabled people still feel shunned by the film industry, unless it is reality TV aimed specifically at showcasing disabilities, like A&E’s “Born This Way,” about people with Down Syndrome. With my known condition, and the glacial pace that the film industry is moving, it’s going to be a long time before I really feel represented in film, beyond the inaccurate portrayal by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Oh, how I wish I could shed that image!

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