Authentic representation

  • 11/01/2018
Maree Ireland
Movie or theatre red curtain

Happy New Year

I have just read an article by Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, in the USA, which is an online community dedicated to creating, amplifying, and sharing disability media and culture. The article explains why we need to include disabled people in conversations about inclusion and can be read on Field’s Facebook page.

Alice Wong makes some poignant points about able bodied actors portraying people with disabilities in the movies and on TV in America – She is angry at the way these actors are employed to portray people with disabilities. She states that people with disabilities are more involved and visible in society, but when it comes to the entertainment industry, we are excluded from authentic representation:

“Disabled people are everywhere and yet we’re invisible and erased by people with unexamined privilege in the centre. An example of ableism: When it’s the default that disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors.”

In Australia, to some extent, we are more accepting of people with disabilities as actors in live theatre and TV shows. I have seen a few actors with disabilities in several locally made shows. For me, it raises several issues though; the first is when a character (played by an able-bodied actor) becomes disabled and goes through a self-pity stage and then miraculously is ‘cured’, becomes able-bodied again and goes off into the wild, blue yonder. Then there can be an actor with a disability, but the storyline revolves around the negativity of having a disability rather than having a life first – i.e. relationship, work etc. – and dealing with ‘disability issues’ instead of not being able to have a life.

So for me, the first issue is ‘representation’ of having a disability needs to change so we are seen as people with the same issues as everyone else in society, but we just have to deal with a few more issues. The representation needs to become ‘positive and sexy’ so interest can be maintained and accepted.

I’ll just tell you about one of my experiences…

Several years ago a group of women with disabilities, myself included, met up with a writer who wanted to write a play about people with disabilities, with people with disabilities as actors. The four of us thought of an idea for a play around pregnancy, motherhood and women with disabilities. The developed story revolved around one woman who has had a baby, and another who is unexpectedly pregnant and undecided about whether to keep the child. The story surrounds the torment her decision has on her other two friends; one who is angry at not having the opportunity to be a mother, and the other who followed her career until it was too late to consider motherhood.

The play was called ‘Perfectly Imperfect’, and we managed to get a 5 day season at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Although, we had to smooth out some bumps along the way, it was a success. Two of us used communication devices which worked well, except when one wasn’t charged enough and one pressed the wrong keys and skipped a few lines!

So, people with diverse disabilities can participate in the entertainment industry, if given the right supports and encouragement. Undoubtedly, our small play was not in the league of live shows and TV productions but we were proud of what we did. I believe it exposed and explored an issue to the audience in a new and real light.

So for me, the issue should be more around the ‘representation of people with disability’ as people with life issues and disability second. Of course I think actors with disabilities (and they should be professional actors) should be employed first, if available, providing they are good actors and right for the role.

What do you think about this issue?

Leave a comment on Field’s facebook page.

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