Our friend Carli Karpeyev left a comment to that post I published here Thursday — you know, the one about the blind-dad TV sitcom. Carli doesn’t have a disability herself, yet she was disappointed that NBC didn’t hire a blind actor for the starring role.
I’ve heard this kind of concern before, why didn’t a wheelchair user play the lead in Born on the Fourth of July, why wasn’t a blind actor cast in Scent of a Woman and so on. It’s never been one of my big causes, though. I mean, gee whiz, isn’t that why they call it acting?
But then I watched a Ted Talk by female stand-up comic Maysoon Zayid that Carli had linked to in the comment she left to my post, and it got me thinking. Maysoon Zayid has cerebral palsy. She studied theater at Arizona State University but gave up her dream to become an actress after repeatedly being passed over for roles.
Even when ASU produced And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, a play about a girl who has physical disabilities growing up in a small (and small-minded) town, Zayid didn’t get the lead. “This is a part I was literally born to play,” she says, lamenting that they cast an able-bodied theatre student instead. “They didn’t think I could do the stunts, but excuse me, if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the character!”
Zayid says she realized very, very quickly that Hollywood wouldn’t have a place for “fluffy ethnic disabled people” like her. The only female stars she could think of who made it to the top without conventional cover girl looks were comediennes. Whoopi Goldberg. Rosie O’Donnell. Roseanne Barr. So she turned to comedy.
Maysoon Zayid is a comedy success story now, but she still advocates for actors with disabilities, asserting in her Ted Talk that if Hollywood won’t hire actors with disabilities for everyday roles, than they ought to stop casting able-bodied actors into roles as people with disabilities. “If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user,” she shrugs.
A lot of disability advocates would agree with Maysoon Zayid. After Blair Underwood got the leading role in last year’s Ironside TV series, Sons of Anarchy star Kurt Yaeger (an actor who lost his left leg after a motorcycle accident) said that casting an actor who can walk for that part is “like being in the ’50s and having a white guy do blackface.”
Teal Sherer says Hollywood’s treatment of her and her fellow actors with disabilities is … lame. Her frustration with Hollywood motivated her to produce her own YouTube show called My Gimpy Life to illustrate the often absurd challenges actors with disabilities face in the entertainment industry. In an NPR interview, Sherer said she doesn’t want roles reserved for her because of her disability — but she does want to get a call to read for parts, including ones not specifically intended for actors with disabilities. “If we lose an opportunity to audition, then we lose an opportunity to move forward in our career,” she said.
A lot of food for thought, huh? And in case you were wondering, the dog playing the guide dog in tonight’s Growing Up Fisher debut is not a guide dog in real life, either. “I don’t want to take a guide dog away from a blind guy,” writer DJ Nash, who grew up with a dad who can’t see, said in an interview promoting the new show.“ It was more important to have a dog that could hit its marks and stop at a construction hole on cue, and not be phased by 167 crew members, than to have that verisimilitudinous touch.”