The Ableist Lens of Hollywood

Director's slate with an accessible icon on it.

Hollywood’s most recent depiction of disability is inspired by a true story, told through the lens of ableism.

The Upside is a film that tells the story of an ex-convict (played by Kevin Hart) who lands a position as a caretaker for a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston). The relationship between the two characters is said to be unusual and “unlikely”…

Disabled moviegoers will unlikely see a genuine representation of disability. Even more unlikely? The presence of an actually disabled actor on screen.

Cranston is not a quadriplegic yet plays a character who is. Because of this, one might think that there is a shortage of disabled actors. Unlikely. The shortage seems to stem from the lack of forward thinking Hollywood executives.

“Disabled people should be the first people you think of when auditioning for a disabled role,” said Evan Marie Ipiluni, a disabled actress. “There are some productions where it is the higher-ups that say no. The producers do not want to take on the extra ‘cost’ that casting a disabled person may bring to a set.”

Ipiluni has Autism and is accompanied by a service dog. Her presence as an actress does not financially cost more than that of her non-disabled counterparts. However, having her service dog on set doesn’t always fit the Hollywood narrative.

“I once received a nasty email from an extras company I worked with stating I had to give two- weeks notice if I was bringing my dog. They typically only let you know you have a role about two days in advance and the email said that the dog was not allowed unless I complied,” said Ipiluni. “I responded with why I needed my service dog. I never heard back and have not received any work from them.”

For actor Michael Patrick Thornton, Hollywood’s erasure of disability – and disabled actors – is frustrating, and he believes it stems from a larger, psychological ideology.

“I’ve had enough of it,” Thornton said.

“America has a giant fear of Death… and disability is–for abled-bodied folks–a signifier of death. It is the mirror into which they dare not look.”

The actor adds, “To confront the idea that our bodies (in my case) can break down is a terrifying prospect. So it’s easier, and more psychologically soothing, to cast an able-bodied actor because at least then there is the possibility of seeing them walk again to go get their award. It’s like a weird rebirth ritual where we say welcome back, that was so upsetting to have to see you like that. Thank God you’re whole again.”

Thornton, who is most noted for his role as Dr. Gabriel Fife on the ABC drama series Private Practice, had a spinal stroke in 2003 that left him comatose and paralyzed for three days. Although he regained some of his mobility, he quickly encountered the industry’s disregard towards disabled actors.

“In the early years of my recovery, I basically was just sent in for ambulance-chasing law firm commercials; you know, the image of tragedy,” recalled Thornton.

“I also remember hearing a casting director on the phone talking about me to a client, advocating for me, saying I had done the best. Then the voice over the speakerphone said; ‘Are you not aware he is in a wheelchair?’

I’m pretty sure that was the moment I said I’m going to prepare harder and go further in my work than I ever thought possible. I’m going to be fanatically honest and vulnerable in my work. I’m going to make them all regret not casting me.”

Despite Thornton’s acting success, losing jobs portraying wheelchair-using characters to abled-bodied actors is feeling more and more gut wrenching.

“It’s like a heavy swift kick in the stomach these days,” Thornton said.

“It used to be easily justified by me believing that it’s all healthy competition… that the purpose of the arts is to better understand and love our fellow human beings, etc etc. But the playing field is so lopsided that it’s not so easy to write it all off to ‘That’s Showbiz’ anymore.”

Ahh yes, “Showbiz.” The glitz, the glamour, the stars and, as Ipiluni and Thornton both shared, some good people creating life stories. Life stories that clearly omit the disability perspective.

“We look to stories to remind us of our shared virtues, of our commonalities across all cultures; in short: what makes us human,” said Thornton. “By so infrequently folding disability into the human tapestry, people and their stories are being actively erased. That’s not okay. In fact, one could make the argument that it’s immoral.”

Art imitating life cannot be achieved without authentic representation of who we are. Disabled actors, writers, producers, and directors are here to tell our stories. Authentic life stories.


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Val Vera is a freelance writer and disability rights advocate living in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas area. He is a graduate of Purdue University and obtained much of his professional experience while residing in San Diego, CA. Val is a self proclaimed movie snob and enjoys writing poetry and spending quality time with his fiance Michelle.

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