Actors with disabilities

Graham Clements
Many characters with disabilities appeared in major films last year. They were in films like “The Theory of Everything”, “Still Alice”, “Gone Girl” and “American Sniper”. But just about all those characters were played by actors who did not have the character’s disability. Characters with disabilities are rarely seen in Australian movies and on television. Australian actress Kate Hood says not enough scripts are being written by writers with disabilities about people with disabilities. Casting agencies find it hard to get roles for people with disabilities. Actors Equity wants more characters with disabilities played by actors with disabilities.
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Graham Clements on 02/04/2015
A photo of the actor RJ Mitte
RJ Mitte

RJ Mitte is in high demand.

This year at least four films up for major Academy Awards had characters with disabilities in them. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the “Theory of Everything”. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for playing a character with Alzheimer’s disease in “Still Alice”, and Rosamund Pike was nominated for portraying a psychopath or someone with narcissistic personality disorder in “Gone Girl”. “American Sniper”, which was nominated for the best picture Oscar, also had a number of injured war veterans in it.

Normalising disabilities

Showing people with disabilities in films and television provides a more realistic representation of society. It can also help break down public misconceptions about disability by letting viewers see the person and not just their disability. For example, Walter White Junior is one of the main characters in the American television series “Breaking Bad”. Both the actor, RJ Mitte, and the character have cerebral palsy. Most viewers of the show would see him as a normal everyday teenager who just happens to have a disability.   

Characters with disabilities seem to be appearing more regularly on American television. Apart from Walter White Junior, Adelaide Langdon had Down syndrome in “American Horror Story”, and the short-statured Tyrion Lannister is a much-loved character in “Game of Thrones”. The actors in these roles all have the same disability as their characters. This is rare as most of the time characters with disabilities are played by people who don’t have that disability.

Only one of nominated Oscar films had actors with disabilities playing characters with that disability. That film was “American Sniper” in which a minor character Wynne is played by Jake Schick; both character and actor are amputees. So why aren’t more characters with disabilities portrayed by actors with disabilities?

Characters with disabilities in Australia

In Australia there seems to be a scarcity of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities in our television programs and films. One obvious reason might be the few characters with disabilities in Australian movies and television shows.

Actress Kate Hood is the Deputy Chair of the Diversity Committee at Actors Equity. In an article written for Equity Magazine she wishes there were more writers with disabilities writing scripts about characters with disabilities for actors with disabilities to play.

But given there have been a few characters with disability in Australian television and film, why aren’t actors with disabilities playing them? Kate Hood says it may be because there aren’t enough well-trained actors with disabilities.

“Drama schools rarely take and train young disabled performers, so there is no pathway for young talented disabled performers to enter the established industry.”

Casting actors with disabilities

Marea Jablonski is the director of the Melbourne casting agency BGM. She says, “In Australia, historically, actors have been drawn from a very narrow pool of qualities. So that already excludes a range of actors from different ethnic backgrounds even before you account for any actors with disabilities.”

“There is pressure on agents to represent actors with fairly mainstream qualities that can cover a range of roles”. So are actors with disabilities not taken on by agents because of a perception that they cannot cover a range of roles?

Salubrious Productions is a Queensland casting agency specialising in professional artists with disabilities. Janelle Colquhoun established the agency and for years has been lobbying that actors with disabilities play characters with disabilities. She is enthusiastic about what is happening in the UK as a result of a policy by Equity, a leading trade union for professional performers and creative practitioners. It has a policy that calls on directors, producers and agents to first consider an actor with a disability to play the role of a character with a disability. She says this policy has increased the number of actors with disabilities cast to play characters with disabilities in the UK.

In Australia, an agreement was reached in 2014 between the Screen Producers Association of Australia and the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the peak union organisation covering the media, entertainment, sports and arts industries.

The Actors Equity’s 2013-2015 Actors’ Television Programs Agreement has a new casting policy that “encourages the inclusion of performers from diverse ethnic backgrounds and/or with a disability”. In time, let’s hope more actors with disabilities may begin appearing on Australian television screens.

Kate Hood says, “We are nowhere near having equal representation, but at last there is a conversation happening”. In her role for the Diversity Committee at Actors Equity, she is pushing to initiate a Disability Showcase so that directors, casting agents and filmmakers have the opportunity to see actors with disabilities.


Kate Hood had recurring roles in the television series “Prisoner” and “Blue Healers” and acted in movies such as “Hotel Sorrento”. These roles were before she developed a disability that resulted in her using a wheelchair. She has not had one audition since she started using a wheelchair. In another article for Equity magazine, she says in her ideal world “it would not be galling to witness an able-bodied actor receiving adulation for playing a disabled person, because I would be a working actor in the mainstream myself”.

Australian film and television needs to become more representative of a diverse Australia by showing more stories that have characters with disabilities. After all, 20 per cent of Australians have a disability. If Kate Hood and Janelle Colquhoun have their way, actors with disabilities should increasingly play those characters. RJ Mitte who played Walter White Junior in “Breaking Bad” is currently in high demand. Given opportunities to be seen, the careers of many Australian actors with disabilities could take off like Mitte’s.   


Readers comments (2)

Here here. It would be great to see more diversity on screen and not just ethnic ones. There's a lot of ageism too, so change is required. I suppose it begins with the writers and the funding bodies. Once the door opens,it will encourage others to come forward to acting careers whereas once they didn't think it possible. I would suggest that there are many more behind the scenes that could do with more diversification.
Having said all that, its a very competitive industry and tough for anyone to get in, unless there is close contacts. Anyone who has tried to crack the film and tv industries in this country can testify to that, myself being one of them.

Great article, Graham. I especially appreciate Kate Hood's comment about able-bodied actors receiving adulation for playing disabled people. It is too easy for the entertainment industry to admire such actors and their performances while apparently overlooking its own discrimination against people who are actually living with disability. I hope Kate's Disability Showcase goes ahead and provokes the conversation in Australia about this issue even further.

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