Diversity has become a buzzword in the entertainment industries – and if there’s still debate about how much things are really changing, or if moves towards greater representation are too often mere lip service or box ticking, the diversity conversation is at least being had. Do badly, and it will get called out. And there genuinely do seem to be signs of change, whether that’s British theatre embracing gender-fluid casting, or Hollywood learning the lessons of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, that ethnically diverse casting and storytelling can help the industry reach new audiences – and net new profits.
Why, then, is one minority group still often ignored? When it comes to representation of people with disabilities, film, TV and theatre still fall depressingly short – despite approximately 15% of the world’s population experiencing disability.
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It’s still common for able-bodied A-listers to play disabled characters – in recent years, Bryan Cranston in The Upside, Sam Claflin in Me Before You, and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything have all been accused of “cripping up”. And if, admittedly, such casting decisions do now consistently prompt criticism, it’s a practice still more widely accepted than, say, casting a white actor in a non-white part.
“It feels like doors are very slowly opening to diversity in general but disability is excluded from that,” says prolific playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne, known for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the new TV adaptation of His Dark Materials, among other things.
Thorne has an invisible disability, cholinergic urticaria, a severe allergy to heat – and throughout his career, he’s tried to ensure that disabled actors are front and centre in his work.
You get push back on casting disabled actors a lot so it’s best to be very upfront with your ambitions – Jack Thorne
Take a look at his latest TV work, for example: His Dark Materials features Mat Fraser as a Gyptian, who just happens to have phocomelia, while his recent Channel 4 drama The Accident included Ruth Madeley as a lawyer, who just happened to use a wheelchair, and Genevieve Barr as a grieving wife, who just happened to be deaf.
Meanwhile Thorne’s stage version of A Christmas Carol, which returns to the Old Vic in London this Christmas for the third year running, and has just opened on Broadway, specified that young, disabled actors must play Tiny Tim. One alumnus of the role, Lenny Rush, has now gone on to star in a new TV version of the Dickens classic, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, and airing this Christmas.