Clare Williams: Neurotypical actors playing learning disabled is as bad as blacking up
Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in Shine, Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump…
The common denominator? All are portrayals of individuals with a learning disability, autism or mental illness, yet each of these roles are portrayed by a neurotypical A-lister. We baulk at the idea of an actor ‘blacking up’ but why doesn’t the inauthentic casting of intellectual disability also strike us as ethically suspect?
Since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929, a massive 16% of best actor awards have been won by neurotypical actors playing non-neurotypical roles. The Oscars’ reinforcement of this as a norm is further segregating and marginalising an already isolated section of performers who face the unconscious bias that they are somehow less competent.
What needs to be recognised is that diverse states of cognition can release aesthetic potential. Working with learning-disabled people isn’t just about equality of access and diversity, it’s about perceiving the world from a different viewpoint.
Hijinx, the Welsh inclusive theatre company that has enjoyed international success with shows Meet Fred and The Flop, want to change this, and we are targeting senior screen industry representatives and politicians to advocate change.
We have made seven recommendations for new standards for casting neurodivergent actors. These include: reflecting diversity in storylines, avoiding stereotypes, making auditions appropriate and casting authentically. If more disabled actors get access, the more there’s a possibility of someone becoming a star.
Working with learning-disabled people isn’t just about equality of access and diversity, it’s about perceiving the world from a different viewpoint
First though, common misconceptions about working with learning-disabled people need to be dispelled. The industry needs to know that there are talented, screen-ready professionals – such as neurodivergent actors Richard Newnham and Lindsay Foster and Down’s syndrome actors Jonathan Pugh, Tom Powell and Gareth John – who could be cast in principal roles tomorrow.
We need to stop perpetuating the myth that working with learning-disabled actors is risky or costly, that they are incapable of playing character or of sustaining concentration.
Today, we announced recommendations at the Casting Neurodivergent Actors in Film and TV Seminar, held at the Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay. The seminar addressed the barriers to casting learning-disabled actors, as well as how casting neurodivergent actors could become the norm. It offered constructive support and advice on how to cast a neurodivergent actor, how to cast authentically and how to avoid stereotypes, with the ultimate goal of ending the casting of neurotypical actors as neurodivergent characters.
We at Hijinx want to set a challenge to the screen industry as a whole: for a neurodivergent actor to win a BAFTA Cymru by 2025, a BAFTA by 2028 and an Oscar by 2030.
Last year, a respected national company in England put out an open call for disabled actors. When I suggested the auditioning of a selection of Hijinx actors, I was dismissed out of hand. It was looking for “professionals – actors in wheelchairs and the like”.
I pointed them to our casting website, where each of our more than 60 highly trained and skilled learning-disabled and neurodivergent actors present themselves and their production experience.
The line went very quiet. I hope a head was hung in shame.
Clare Williams is chief executive of Hijinx Theatre
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