HEY! YOU! MEDIA! An Inconvenient Truth About Why Casting is a Problem in “The Upside”

The inconvenient truth about The Upside is that its misguided casting is based in a biased business decision, not creative expression.

As in Me Before YouBreathe,  and He Won’t Get Far on FootThe Upside failed to cast a wheelchair-using actor and instead chose Bryan Cranston, who does not have a visible disability.  Admittedly, I hadn’t expected Cranston to have actually been “the one who knocks” in his own life when he played the role of a drug dealer. But I am critical of him deciding to take the role of a recently disabled man — and, more importantly, I’m critical of how systems protected him from having to face serious competition from wheelchair-using actors. He recently defended his choice, saying it was a “business decision.”

Many disabled people disagree. Cranston, and many others, scoff at the criticism, saying that movies are a commercial venture and that, moreover, disability is just another fictional experience to portray. Actors act, after all…unless the actor has a visible disability, in which case their talent could never sway an audience — or a producer.

Muddling these arguments together is a mistake. The first is about business practices and the second is about creative expression. For actors, creative expression requires industry access — and that’s why casting norms need to change before debates about representation and creative expression can be anything but theoretical.


If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. If only 2% of roles are disabled characters, to begin with, and 95% are played by actors without disabilities, that’s a systemic employment barrier.


Creative expression has different bases. Some of us experience disability as an event that affects our lives and some experience it as a component of our identity. Many of us experience both.

In creating disability narratives, this difference positions disability either as an event that drives the plot forward or as a component of identity that contributes to a character.  Both are valid and both can lead to high- or low-quality work.

That difference is not going to be resolved. It’s not even a problem to be solved. In terms of acting, I would say it’s even a mistake right now to be drawn into too much arguing about the specifics of who’s “allowed” to play what roles.


The problem is that actors with visible disabilities are shut out of casting and that prevents careers — and clout.


One reason is that it too easily reduces us to diagnoses. Another it that it risks inhibiting imagination and empathy. I have muscular dystrophy and use a wheelchair now. I spent my childhood misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy. I’ve had agitated depression. And I swear to god I don’t know if I’m sweating right now from frustration or menopause. I have also had colds, pneumonia, and tummy-aches. What types of disabilities are “appropriate” for me to play? Should only people like me, who grew up with a disability, play roles of characters who had disabilities in childhood? And where does this leave the vast numbers of actors with invisible disabilities who have succeeded in passing as non disabled? 

It’s an interesting discussion — what constitutes “enough” experience — but it’s currently entangled with the real issue to be confronted: biased business practices.

Trying to avoid thThe argument that a non disabled actor — in this case, Bryan Cranston — is simply the superior artist doesn’t hold up. What are all of these roles that visibly disabled actors have performed in such an inferior fashion? Spoiler alert: They don’t exist so you have no actual comparison. Just an assumption that visibly disabled actors wouldn’t be as good or better.

And, in terms of artistry, here’s a question: To what degree does the non disabled actor depend upon a prop to get the acting job done? Because when it comes to physical disability, I’m not sure audiences would buy him as a wheelchair-user if he weren’t sitting in a wheelchair. Props are important, yes, but they’re not a substitute for an actor.

The problem is that actors with visible disabilities are shut out of casting and that prevents careers — and clout. That’s the problem in the business of show. That’s why Cranston’s casting is being called out. 


This is why losing one more exceedingly rare lead role — a wheelchair-using character — is so infuriating. Using the tired “Because BUSINESS” is a sloppy excuse for systemic bias that produces abysmal hiring rates. Casting is currently a business that effectively places its every office on the second floor of an elevator-less building and then says no wheelchair-using actors showed up so they just don’t want it enough, etc., etc..


Visibly disabled actors are not considered “appropriate” for casting in roles where there’s no mention of disability. The truth is that, had he been a visibly disabled actor, casting statistics show how unlikely it is that Cranston would have been cast in the many, many roles that, together, have built his career and now provide his clout.  

If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. If only 2% of roles are disabled characters, to begin with, and 95% are played by actors without disabilities, that’s a systemic employment barrier. Starvation seldom breeds generosity. 

This is why losing one more exceedingly rare lead role — a wheelchair-using character — is so infuriating. Using the tired “Because BUSINESS” is a sloppy excuse for systemic bias that produces abysmal hiring rates.

Casting is currently a business that effectively places its every office on the second floor of an elevator-less building and then says no wheelchair-using actors showed up so they just don’t want it enough, etc., etc..

When an actor like Bryan Cranston finally has to actually compete with physically disabled actors who are in his casting echelon, then we can have that thoughtful discussion about balancing representation and artistic expression. Until then, it’s just  another business getting away with unfair practices. And not even very creatively. 

A janky wheelchair named Janky Wheelchair

This is not a substitute for physically disabled actors. Courtesy of https://hiveminer.com/User/klickertrigger

How to Do Inclusive Philanthropy: Introducing #DisabledInDevelopment

A Crip in PhilanthropyI’m a in grant-making ! Whoopee! As of November 1, I became a Trustee of Awesome Foundation’s Disability Chapter. It only took 25 years of being on the grant-seeking side of . I’d like to thank every teacher and boss who helped me with inaccessible toilets along the way.  You had my back when I was angry about something even I didn’t fully understand: I was up against a real thing – ableism – that created structural barriers to doing my job well.

And that brings me to: How to Do Inclusive Philanthropy.

Actually raising money, day in, day out, at DREDF doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for big-vision work. But I have one for inclusive philanthropy:

Philanthropy that has evolved from being the hothouse for benevolent ableism to a force for fighting all forms of ableism. Wash that charity right out of its hair.

I could spend months fine-tuning an inclusive philanthropy action plan but I’ve got a year-end campaign to run. So. Here are what 25 years of being disabled in development tell me are the ways to start scrubbing the charity model out of philanthropy:

1. Go inside out, bottom up.

Start by respecting the knowledge your current staff likely has, especially your front-line, support, and administrative staffs. 

The key: Lose your bias for titles and fancy degrees, and find out who in your organization has an interest in flexible schedules, paid family leave, and other such benefits. Why? Because disability, chronic illness, and aging may be driving that interest. Because they may feel they’ve been “special tracked” and blocked from moving up. That makes them more likely to have a vested interest in disability inclusion.

Why: Real change takes dogged persistence and these employees could well be your long-haul champions for transformative change.

2. Demonstrate that disability inclusion is not “the Other” in your philanthropic organization.

One of the most common misperceptions about disability is that it’s just not something your organization “does.” Fill out this simple “disability inventory” and you may well see disability is all around you, but called something else. 

Why: There absolutely will be folks in your philanthropic organization who believe disability = other people. They’ll be more receptive to the dogged persistence of your disability champions if it doesn’t mean “new stuff.”

3. Organize. Organize. Organize.

Help tell the real-life, true experiences of being disabled in development so that our invisible knowledge can help make glorious, ableism-ending change in philanthropy. Contact me if you’d like to be profiled (by name or anonymously) and featured in my new #DisabledInDevelopment series. I’ve got brief interviews with 3 amazing people — all women of color — in the works.

Compensation available because I don’t expect unpaid consulting from disabled people.

Why: So, so many people in philanthropy do not have the option of being out, safely, as disabled. #DisabledInDevelopment is intended both to help normalize disability in the sector and to provide an accessible platform for describing the structural discrimination they encounter and that all-too often halts career advancement or forces them out when they “hit the porcelain ceiling.”

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An Open Letter to Advocacy Funders: #FundDisAdvocacy Because Disability + Ableism = Structural Discrimination

 

Want in on the conversation about ableism? Check out what disabled advocates, civil and human rights activists, and philanthropic leaders had to say at the Twitter chat on 10/12/18 about philanthropy and inclusion. Then make your voice heard at #FundDisAdvocacy.


A Crip in PhilanthropyFoundation funding for disability advocacy dropped 23% between 2011-2015. Disabled people were the only group to see a decrease. Most funders are “aware” of disability but do they see ableism and structural discrimination? How do we make funders see disability civil and human rights as areas of actionable, urgent advocacy? A first step is recognizing disability as a constant but hidden set of variables in nearly all formulas for civil and human rights. 

I’m writing to you in my capacity as a community organizer – which is another name for a social justice fundraiser.
I believe you and I share common ground on the importance of advocacy:
We know that the great civil and human rights gains of the last century, envisioned and organized by the grassroots, were built to last through the courts and legislation, and they will continue to be the battlefields for preserving them.
I’m writing because disability civil and human rights advocacy is missing from your funding portfolios.
The first step in changing that is frank communication.

When you do not explicitly say “disability” in funding advocacy, you send a message to us: Deny, disown, and downplay your disability identity. That denies all marginalized communities access to our hard-won legal tools and, worse yet, our expertise in using them.


You may understand this letter, at first, as pertaining to a discrete group: disabled people. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that civil and human rights for any community can be fully achieved if we neglect, forget, or disregard such a basic human condition as disability and allow it to be the “natural” cause of poverty and abuse. If we are not safe or free to be vulnerable, then we cannot call ourselves safe or free. Our society is not safe or free.

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