Ableism in the arts: from Sia to Rain Man

By Charlie Barnett

Sia has recently faced criticism over her decision to cast Maddie Ziegler in her upcoming directorial debut, Music, as a non-verbal autistic woman.

The decision builds on an already toxic tendency in the arts to pass the microphone to neurotypical performers, to voice neuroatypical experiences. 95% of disabled roles are played by non-disabled actors.

Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man marked a turning point in being one of the first films to centre its narrative on an autistic protagonist. But the choice to cast a non-disabled man to play the part throws a different light on the production, and its legacy. Chris Bonnello, autism advocate of Autistic Not Weird, said, “Many say that Rain Man is now damaging to autism awareness, and I see their point.” Bonnello believes that the film “should be regarded as a piece of history.” Rain Man was released in 1988, and it seems that with Sia’s recent casting, history is painfully repeating itself. Sia herself has described her upcoming film as “Rain Man the musical, but with girls.”

While “blacking up,” is rightly met with condemnation and outrage, “cripping up” is still greeted with awards

Inclusive casting for disabled people has been elusive throughout media and stage history. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking garnered him an Oscar win, and Daniel Day-Lewis scooped up several awards for his performance of a man with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot. The pattern of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is extremely damaging. Frances Ryan notes how, while “blacking up,” is rightly met with condemnation and outrage, “cripping up” is still greeted with awards. Playing neurodiverse roles lands actors with a higher chance of being nominated for awards. 16% of best actor and actress accolades have been given to performances of characters with disabilities or mental illnesses. Why then, are the majority of these portrayals done by neurotypical performers? The casting of non-disabled people consequently feels harrowingly exploitative. The media does not grant disabled people equal opportunities for self-representation that are demanded for other minority groups.

The explanation behind why neurotypical and non-disabled actors are repeatedly cast is clear. Big names are needed to pull people into auditoriums and cinemas, and the supply of disabled actors that fit the bill is regrettably small. Some have argued that for Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, the role required the degeneration of his character. A disabled actor would not have been able to play Hawking in the earlier scenes of the film, before he developed motor neurone disease. It has also been argued that acting is acting. Does a performer have to experience something to truthfully depict it? Where can you draw the line? But there is a wider issue of identity politics at hand. As long as non-disabled actors are playing these roles, disabled performers are being excluded and denied the opportunity to play parts that are already in short supply. Just as it would be wrong for a white actor to try and portray the lived experience of a black character, it feels equally wrong for an able actor to depict a disabled character, especially when it statistically lines them up for praise when award season comes around.

Pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people

Christopher shinn

Disabled playwright John Belluso believed that by having non-disabled actors playing disabled roles, performances are imbued with a sense of distance. It would be relieving for the audience to see an actor walk to receive an award, after so convincingly portraying a disability. He describes how, “society’s fear and loathing around disability can be magically transcended.” Teenagers fawning over Ansel Elgort’s performance as an amputee in The Fault in Our Stars can take comfort in the fact that it is just that – a performance. Christopher Shinn aptly surmises the problem that “pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.” The play by Alex Oates, All in Row, notoriously chose to depict their lead role of an autistic child in the form of a puppet. The National Autistic Society withdrew their support of the production, and the distasteful choice was branded as dehumanisation in its cruellest form. As an audience member, we are able to acknowledge the strength required in living as a disabled person, but simultaneously create a facade of false representation. The people who really struggle with disability are instead shamefully resigned to the wings.

Sia’s response to backlash following the release of her film’s trailer seemed tone-deaf to these issues. When questioned by an autistic actress as to why Sia hadn’t auditioned neurodiverse people for the role, she responded, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” In doing so, she undermined an entire community. A petition to cancel Sia’s upcoming film has already amassed 10,250 signatures at the time of writing. Mickey Rowe, who starred as the first autistic actor to play the lead role in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, called out Sia’s problematic behaviour. Rowe points out that autistic people use scripts every day to better understand social situations, and acknowledges that he is a better actor because of – not in spite of  – his autism. His performance as Christopher received widespread acclaim. Sia disregards the abilities of neurodivergent people, and in doing so reinforces the stigma around representing disabilities in the arts. Similar attitudes were exposed in the casting of the character Artie Abrams in Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Casting director Janis Hirsch defended the choice of non-disabled Kevin McHale to play a paraplegic character by saying that, “none of ‘you people’ auditioned.” Glee, a show that touts the message of inclusivity and self-expression, falls shamefully short in depicting a truthful representation of disability. Instead, Artie’s paraplegia comes across as just a tool to explore another level of superficial teen angst, and boycotts addressing real, deeper issues.

It is hard to get a role in this industry no matter what, disabled or non-disabled, there is always someone better looking or with a better disability

RJ Mitte

Examples where disabled actors have been cast to play disabled characters have often been widely successful. RJ Mitte who starred alongside Bryan Cranston in cult favourite Breaking Bad, has long been an advocate for more inclusive casting and wider representation in the arts for disabled people. Historically, portrayals of disabilities latch onto stereotypes of helplessness and victimhood. While 20% of people have disabilities, only 1% of speaking parts in television portray disability. People are hungry for realism. The glamorisation of disability prevents true stories being told. Mitte argues that the issue lies in the shallow attitudes towards casting in the industry, “It’s hard to get a role in this industry no matter what, disabled or non-disabled, there’s always someone better looking or with a better disability.”

Although Sia has continued to fiercely defend her film, her response to rightful backlash has been deeply troubling. The continued casting of able people to play disabled characters makes equity in the arts a distant goal, unless things start to change. Disabled people deserve self-representation, and they deserve it now.

Illustration: Verity Laycock

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