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Arts, Media & Disability

August 17, 2016

By Jeremy Einbinder

As those in the disabled community fight for a more inclusive society, they often find that the toughest battles are with entrenched viewpoints about disability rather than any personal physical or intellectual  challenge. Two recent articles highlight how culture surrounding disability has a profound impact on the way people respond to it in the real world.

In theater, disability representation may sometimes be perceived as lacking, or, if present, inadequate.  There is little doubt that any story revolving around disability is rich with potential, but  this rarely translates into opportunities for  performers with disabilities.  The New York Times article, “Actors With Disabilities Are Ready, Willing and Able to Take More Roles,” presents a rare instance of such roles being assigned to  actors  with  the disabilities inhabited by their characters, as is the case with Greg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, who star in  “Cost of Living.” However, in the past several years of Broadway, numerous plays have included physically or cognitively disabled characters whose parts have gone to non-disabled actors. The culture surrounding disabled portrayal seems to be one of celebration at the ability of an actor to mimic the hardship of those who actually live with disabilities on a daily basis, a perspective that even Sullivan celebrates as “putting on someone else’s soul.” Writing in The Times, however, Howard Sherman, the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts only sees this practice as taking an opportunity away from a capable disabled performer.  There is a reason, the article expands, why blackface is no longer applauded.

To combat the images that circulate in popular culture regarding disability, Alice Wong created the Disability Visibility Project. Wong is an activist who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and in a piece with NBC News, she protests the fact that disability is so commonly portrayed as a tragic story, “There are so many characters with disabilities who feel like their lives aren’t worth living.” With disability so commonly a looming mystery among a population that fears how they would react in a similar situation, it is difficult for people who tell these stories to recognize the humanity in disabled people. “You don’t see many characters with disabilities who are just living their lives,” Wong said. Wong wants to encourage those with disabilities to record their oral histories and simply tell their stories as they see fit, an attitude absent from most media outlets. However, in a world where disabled access is often such an afterthought, this is hardly surprising.

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