EDITORS NOTE: Over the past two weeks, a controversy has been brewing over the casting of Alec Baldwin as a blind man in the Michael Mailer-directed indie Blind. Led by the Ruderman Foundation — a non-profit that advocates for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life — the issue was raised as to why the filmmaker would cast a seeing actor for a blind role. Mailer responded last week — the day the indie drama opened in theaters — in a guest column on Deadline, arguing that many of the films depicting disabilities — My Left Foot, Ray, Coming Home, Scent Of A Woman and The Theory Of Everything among others — would likely not have been made if bigger-name actors were not attached. Today comes the response from Ruderman Foundation president Jay Ruderman, which he titled “Alec Baldwin Didn’t Cause the Problem, But He Can Help Solve It.”
We are very glad that our comments on the miscasting of Alec Baldwin in Blind have generated a nationwide conversation. The impetus behind our advocacy for inclusion of people with disabilities is the sad and simple fact that even though people with disabilities are a legally protected group, they still face some of the most pervasive discrimination and segregation in our society.
Michael Mailer listed one example of this discrimination when he named several actors who have played a character with a disability — Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino. What all these actors have in common, in addition to incredible talent and Oscars, is that not a single one had the disability they portrayed. As a matter of fact, in the last three decades, about half of all the Oscars for Best Actor have gone to able-bodied performers playing a character with a disability. While about 20% of the U.S. population has a disability, only 2.4% of speaking characters in movies do, and 1.7% of television characters do. When it comes to actual actors with disabilities on screen, not just characters, the numbers are even lower. It is painfully obvious that there is a pervasive pattern of non-representation of people with disabilities in movies and television.
We are not saying that Michael Mailer or Alec Baldwin created this problem, but we are saying that a problem exists, and as movie creators, they can help solve it. We are also by no means discrediting the remarkable performances of all the able-bodied actors who won acclaim for playing people with disabilities. Their talent is unquestionable. We are, however, questioning why a fifth of our population is nearly invisible when it comes to one of our country’s most influential mediums: movies and TV? No amount of calling our argument “politically correct” will change the reality of systemic discrimination against performers with disabilities in Hollywood. What will lead to change is a sustained commitment on all levels of the production process to audition more performers with disabilities — a practice that in time leads to more hiring, and greater self-representation.
A common retort we receive when we push for more auditioning of actors with disabilities is that films couldn’t get financed without “name” actors. Let’s put aside the many exceptions, like Oscar-winning Moonlight, or Children Of A Lesser God, a movie that took the then-unknown deaf actress Marlee Matlin and propelled her to an Oscar. If the argument is that there aren’t any well-known stars with disabilities, then the solution goes back to a commitment to audition performers with disabilities and give them the opportunity to become well-known — after all, every big name started out as an unknown. We feel that Blind missed the chance to give just such an opportunity to a blind actor to star alongside Demi Moore — a name that is quite well-known. However, Michael Mailer points out that a few smaller roles in Blind were indeed filled with performers with disabilities, and we commend him for that.
This kind of pipeline is exactly the kind of project that the Ruderman Family Foundation has been working on as part of our ongoing advocacy to level the playing field in Hollywood, in collaboration with longtime advocates such as Danny Woodburn, Tari Hartman Squire, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, and others. We’ve reached out to TV producers through our Ruderman TV Challenge and have largely found a welcoming attitude. Our challenge results will come out this September, but for now suffice it to say that many people recognize that this issue is not just one of self-representation, and by far not one of “political correctness killing art,” on the contrary: art flourishes through authenticity. Audiences want to see authentic portrayals and they will spend money to see them. That’s why we’re seeing more and more excellent roles played by performers with disabilities such as Micah Fowler in ABC’s Speechless, and CJ Jones in Baby Driver, for example. There is change, but we’ve still a long way to go.
So with that said, we sincerely extend our TV Challenge to all movie creators as well: pledge to audition more performers with disabilities.