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

HEY! YOU! MEDIA!: Let’s Make Suicide Awareness Month and World Suicide Prevention Day Inclusive of People With Disabilities

5.  Why is suicide being presented as a solution, rather than a problem, when the people involved have disabilities?

September is Suicide Awareness Month and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m writing this because media coverage over the past year alone seems to warrant an explicit reminder that:

  • We don’t lack awareness of people with disabilities committing suicide; we do allow vulnerable people to feel shame over chronic pain and depression.
  • Our suicides deserve prevention, not encouragement and cultural misrepresentation, as in films such as Me Before You.

What’s the context beyond the medical? What are the underlying attitudes guiding how the media’s coverage of people with disabilities who have committed suicide or who are planning to do so?

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People With Disabilities to Protest Movie “Me Before You” As “#MeBeforeEuthanasia in Berkeley, CA, Birthplace of the Disability Civil Rights Movement

The only thing “Me Before You” normalizes is a deadly double standard when it comes to suicide prevention and people with disabilities.

People in local cross-disability communities in association with Not Dead Yet(www.notdeadyet.org) are staging a protest at the Berkeley Shattuck Cinemas on Thursday, June 2, 2016, from 6:15PM-7:15PM PT. The purpose of this peaceful demonstration is to oppose the film’s ableist message that people with disabilities are better off dead, and that we are a burden to others. Protesters are organizing across the United States using hashtags such as #MeBeforeEuthanasia, #MeBeforeAbleism, and the film’s unintentionally ironic #LiveBoldly.

“Me Before You” is the latest Hollywood film to grossly misrepresent the lived experience of the majority of disabled people. In the film, a young, white, and wealthy man becomes disabled and falls in love with his “carer,” a young woman who has been hired by his family to cure his suicidal depression with romance.

Despite her opposition, however, the hero does the “honorable” thing by killing himself in Switzerland with the assistance of the pro-euthanasia organPromo image of Me Before You movie. Text: Protest Me Before You! Meet at Berkeley, CA Shattuck Cinemas 6/2, 6:15-7:15PM. "Me Before You is little more than a disability snuff move, giving audiences the message that if you're a disabled person, you're better off dead." #LiveBoldly? We already do! #MeBeforeEuthanasia In assoc with Not Dead Yet USAization Dignitas – leaving his fortune to her so she can move on without the “burden” of a disabled partner. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, “Me Before You” is little more than a disability snuff film, giving audiences the message that if you’re a disabled person, you’re better off dead.

The narrative of “Me Before You” and the leaders of the team who brought it to the screen are perpetuating stereotypes that people with disabilities are still fighting against.

Three of the key damaging messages “Me Before You” advances are:

Disability is ugly. Thea Harrock, the film’s director, has said publicly that she made a calculated decision to not include visuals of the main character, a young, wealthy, white man who has sustained a spinal cord injury, using tools for daily living, such as lifts or hoists because they would make audiences “uncomfortable.”

 Disability = “It doesn’t get better.”Me Before You” denies the fluid nature of living with a disability, in which both levels of disability and adjustment change over time. Conflating one stage on a continuum of living – early post-trauma – with the entire lived experience is an error that a character might understandably make but it is inexcusable for the film to make the same mistake. Imagine if we told young people in the LGBT communities who are traumatized and depressed because of internalized stigma and a world full of homophobic barriers that suicide was a rational response.

Mental health services are not for people with disabilities. In a time when mental health services are undercut by radical losses in funding, “Me Before You” helps argue that they are unnecessary – and useless – interventions for people with disabilities. The conceit that a sexless romance with a pretty girl will in any way address the suicidal depression of a young man who has sustained a life-altering spinal cord injury is as ludicrous as it is harmful.

B/w photo of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in an open car. He is doffing a top hat. They are both grinning. Text reads "Fuck "Normal"!“Me Before You” insults audiences by presuming that they cannot handle the realities of disability. By casting an actor who does not have a visible disability, by reducing the complex emotions that come with transitioning to life as a disabled person to unimaginative clichés, and by removing all evidence of the economic and social barriers that people with disabilities battle, the film kills any potential for authentic drama. The director claims the goal of “normalizing” disability without any awareness that “normal” is a freighted concept to people with disabilities. The only thing “Me Before You’ normalizes is a deadly double standard when it comes to suicide prevention and people with disabilities.