Disabled Actors Need Better Representation In Hollywood

by : Julia Banim on : 07 Oct 2018 16:21
Tom Hanks Forrest GumpTom Hanks Forrest GumpParamount Pictures

It’s been 24 years since the world was first introduced to the loveable, inspirational character of Forrest Gump.

Movie goers were charmed and motivated by how Forrest overcame his significant personal challenges to lead a full and prosperous life.


Growing up with a curved spine and learning difficulties, Forrest was excluded by other children, but grew up to become a decorated war hero, ping-pong champion and wealthy shrimp business investor.

This was arguably Tom Hanks’ most memorable role, with his endearing, resilient – and highly quotable – performance capable of moving the most hard-hearted of viewers to tears.

Despite the success of Forrest Gump – the second highest-grossing film of 1994 – there are very few Hollywood movies featuring a physically or intellectually disabled character.


According to a 2016 study from the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 2.4 per cent of all speaking or named characters in the 800 most popular movies of 2007 to 2015 were shown to have a disability. Just 14 films included a main character with a disability.

This is not at all representative when one billion people – 15 per cent of the global population – are living with some form of disability.

Among the films starring a disabled character, there are precious few characters actually portrayed by a disabled actor. Just five per cent of the disabled roles we see on screen are played by disabled actors.


Able-bodied actors cast to tell disabled stories are often praised for bringing realism to the role, while disabled actors are often left overlooked.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘cripping up’ among disability activists, with comparisons made to the socially reviled practice of ‘blacking up’.

Actor, presenter and disability campaigner, Adam Pearson, told UNILAD:


We are fighting the proverbial battle upon two fronts here. One is based upon access and opportunity and the other upon representation. Disabled actors are often overlooked in favour of ‘cripping up’ their able bodied counterparts.

In some cases such as with Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything where there are elements of historical fact and lineage that need to be adhered to, I understand that casting a disabled actor for that role might not have been feasible and I completely respect that.

In other instances though, such as the casting of Jacob Tremblay in Wonder (the adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Book) there are less constraints on casting decisions and I see no reason why a child with a disfigurement could not have been cast in that role.

Pearson (Under the Skin) has neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic condition where benign tumours grow on nerve tissue. He’s recently criticised the casting of Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) as Joseph Merrick in the BBC’s upcoming adaption of The Elephant Man.

Merrick (1862-1890), who suffered from severe deformities, was exhibited in a human oddities show before being treated at the London Hospital. Many disability activists were disappointed an able bodied actor was chosen to play such an iconic disabled figure.


Pearson said:

I’m acutely aware though that I don’t want to cross a line and take this conversation too far in the other direction.

Making the argument that ‘only disabled actors can play disabled roles’ is equally bigoted and unhelpful, and it comes down to delineating the difference between equality of opportunity (making the entire casting process more accessible for disabled actors, something I am in favour of) and equality of outcome (a form of positive discrimination that will prove more damaging long term).

The more open and accessible the creative industry can become, the more diverse the talent pool will be. It’s a win/win and a ‘no brainer’.

Grace Mandeville and Linda Blacker are campaigning for greater disability visibility in Hollywood.Grace Mandeville and Linda Blacker are campaigning for greater disability visibility in Hollywood.Linda Blacker

Hoping to encourage greater inclusivity in Hollywood, actor Grace Mandeville and photographer Linda Blacker have teamed up to launch the ‘More Than A Disability’ campaign.

Mandeville and Blacker created a series of five posters depicting disabled actors and models in roles which would typically be given to able-bodied actors, such as rom-com leads, perfume ad models and, of course, 007 himself.

Mandeville, who was born with a right arm ending at her elbow, told UNILAD:

There’s a huge stigma around the fact that disabled actors aren’t good enough, and shouldn’t be employed to even play the roles they were literally born for: A character with a disability.

But honestly I think casting someone disabled for a disabled character isn’t the solution, what we really need to be doing is casting actors for roles where the disability isn’t the leading story.

If someone with a disability is hired to play a lawyer or a superhero – a character of power who just so happens to have this disability, then who cares if Dwayne Johnson is having his leg green screened out for a film, we just want equal representation and opportunities in Hollywood.

Blacker added:

Directors can really influence the future of disabled talent in film. I believe it’s important to understand that as there are limited disabled roles available in film, to then cast an abled body actor in those roles leaves disabled talent with limited opportunity.

It’s time to create more opportunity for disabled talent, with a variation of roles where the characters story is not their disability.

Hollywood needs better disability representation.Hollywood needs better disability representation.Linda Blacker

Unfortunately, disabled characters in films can all too often be reduced to restrictive stereotypes, as identified by Paul Hunt, from Leeds University’s Centre for Disability Studies, in a 1991 study:

The disabled person as pitiable and pathetic, as an object of curiosity or violence, as sinister or evil, as the super cripple, as atmosphere, as laughable, as her/his own worst enemy, as a burden, as non-sexual, and as being unable to participate in daily life.

Although conducted nearly thirty years ago, this study still reads true for many disabled actors. Consider for instance the character of Will (Sam Claflin) in Me Before You, which drew criticism from many disability activists for supposedly giving the message that death is preferable to disability; sparking the hashtag #mebeforeeuthanasia.

Pearson told UNILAD:

Disability in film is rarely incidental, it’s often propagated in order to drive forward some form of narrative like in Me Before You or in older films like Rain Man or Ray.

Where are all the ‘average’ portrayals? The disabled guy that likes beer and sport or the child that’s obsessed with Pokemon? Until disabled actors get to act outside of these tropes how will the issue move forward?

New campaign for more disabled actors.New campaign for more disabled actors.Linda Blacker

Over two decades on from Forrest Gump, would casting the lead role today be any different? Sadly, Blacker feels disability representation is ‘moving very slowly’, with disabled actors still remaining ‘marginalised’.

Speaking about a theoretical, contemporary Forrest Gump, Mandeville also expressed doubts about whether casting choices would be any more inclusive:

I’d like to say that the casting would be different, or at least spark an important discussion, but time and time again I find myself disappointed with how this industry handles casting.

This is why we created this campaign in the first place, to grab the attention of the people who can make a change.

However, Pearson feels there would be a difference, and has advised viewers to bear in mind the much different time period when Forrest Gump was released:

Of course. Art, quite rightly, is very much of its time and should be allowed to exist as such. For the record Forrest Gump is my favourite film, and I think holding a film from 1994 up to our 2018 levels of political correctness is slightly dangerous and creatively restrictive.

More than a disability campaign.More than a disability campaign.Linda Blacker

Phil Talbot, Head of Communications at disability equality charity, Scope, told UNILAD:

When disabled people don’t see themselves represented, talent and potential goes unrecognised and negative attitudes and stigma goes unchallenged.

At Scope, we believe that anyone working to challenge negative attitudes and celebrate disability is a Disability Gamechanger. Change requires action at all levels in society and everyone can play their part – particularly the media.

We’d like everyone at all levels in the media to become Disability Gamechangers, and actively challenge perceptions and attitudes towards disabled people in everything they do.

Hollywood needs more disabled actors.Hollywood needs more disabled actors.Linda Blacker

Forrest Gump is one of my personal favourite films, and it just goes to show how much movie-goers do want to see stories about diversity and difference.

With high profile activists pushing for change, could we one day see a Hollywood which better represents the wide variety of those who love and appreciate good film-making?

If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

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