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Actor Dorothy Laity: ‘Disabled actors: speak up. Able-bodied actors: get educated’

Purposeless Movement by Robert Softley Gale – a dance theatre piece specifically written for four men with cerebral palsy. " 20% of actors have disabilities says Dorothy Laity. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic Purposeless Movement by Robert Softley Gale – a dance theatre piece specifically written for four men with cerebral palsy. " 20% of actors have disabilities says Dorothy Laity. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Much has been said about improving the visibility of disabled actors. Should there be quotas? Should roles be restricted to disabled actors? Should disabled characters be played only by disabled actors? These questions directly affect a fifth of the industry.

Before 2013, acting was “an exempt profession” meaning an employer – in our case a casting professional – could limit the kind of candidates they would see. It was acceptable to say: “Only able, 6ft white men for this part.”

When acting was re-categorised in 2013, it had to meet recruitment legislation applicable to other industries. Candidates can only be limited if the role meets one of nine conditions and is granted a certificate of exemption. For example, in a film with a graphic birth scene, it is acceptable to cast a woman.

In practice, however, most auditions continue as though nothing has changed. The legislation is not enforced other than by actors reporting castings.

This is unfair and impractical. Reporting casting compliance issues is too time-consuming for most actors. Moreover, in an industry where reputation is all, complainants are too often labelled as troublemakers.

Once an audition is scheduled, an actor who is disabled cannot interact with the company to reveal their status; they can’t ring to confirm disabled parking or accessible toilets. Equally, the production may not ask questions, or reference any candidate’s disability status.

Only after the contract has been signed can necessary adaptations be discussed. Producers may then be faced with unanticipated costs.

Written feedback is not mandatory; too often you’ll be told in person, or by telephone, that your disability was why you weren’t chosen. This is illegal, but it is their word against yours. Since, again, reputation is key, this is under-reported and rarely dealt with.

The 20% of actors with disabilities need to find our voices. Talk to friends, family, colleagues and representatives letting them know you’re being auditioned. Let them know the statistics. Report every offence so that it can be addressed – helping to improve the industry for everyone. Able-bodied colleagues can help too. First, join the union; learn about industry minimum standards and legal requirements. Insist on nothing less.

Use your voice. Request your union visits, and speak up when things are wrong and watch out for your disabled colleagues. If someone is suddenly replaced, ask why. If you are not satisfied, report. A gagging clause cannot protect wrongdoing. Speak up.

If you’re a casting director whose client says they won’t see people with disabilities, let that be known – consider not working with them. Add a statement of intent to your terms and conditions stating that you are in favour of casting actors with disabilities and will not prevent them from access to any job.

It is only when the whole industry insists on better conduct from all that this issue will finally be resolved. Speak out.

Dorothy Laity is an actor, stage manager and technician

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