Emily Howlett: Why are deaf actors still being sidelined?

Posted on January 26, 2015

The new Stephen Hawking biopic, ‘The Theory of Everything’ caused heated discussion before it was even released, with the announcement that Eddie Redmayne, an able-bodied actor, would be playing the main role.

Once the film hit cinemas, the controversy only escalated, with some praising Redmayne’s performance, while others questioned whether the role should have gone to a disabled actor instead.

In many cases (for example, the wheelchair using character in Glee), there is no reason why a disabled actor couldn’t play that part just as well, if not more realistically, than an able-bodied actor.

A wheelchair user will have genuine experience, not only of living with their disability but also of society’s attitudes towards them, and how that can make them feel or behave.

But then, actors by their very profession should be able to give a convincing performance of anyone; nobody is asking for someone playing a serial killer to go out and butcher a few friends for authenticity… So, why is it so ‘bad’ when an able-bodied artist takes the role of a disabled character?

The short answer is; equality.

An able-bodied actor can audition for literally hundreds of roles; the casting breakdowns are often quite flexible. Unless it comes to disability. There’s never really been any reason why someone who is deaf cannot play a regular in Hollyoaks, pull a few pints in the Woolpack or even accost a few spies in James Bond, but it somehow just doesn’t happen.

Disabled actors are limited to specifically disabled characters. These are few and far between, usually have a depressingly tokenistic point to their disability – “Oh my gosh, of course the deaf guy did it! He totally lip-read her confession that she secretly likes audiologists and killed her in a rage!” – and are rarely starring or regular roles.

So, essentially, the argument is that if disabled actors are already very limited in the parts they are being offered, these shouldn’t be taken by able-bodied artists who have a much greater range of opportunities.

But what does this have to do with Deaf actors?

Well, recent years have seen a great boom in Deaf talent, on stage and screen. A lot of artists are becoming more respected, and more well-known, despite the fact that there are still so few roles in mainstream productions.

But, as the recent French film La Famille Belier showed, there’s still an overwhelming tendency to cast hearing actors as deaf characters, and often communication difficulties are cited as a reason for this.

Are Deaf actors being overlooked, simply because production companies don’t want to use interpreters? Do the companies not know that interpreters exist? I don’t think this can be the case, unless it comes down purely to expense, in which case it will only get worse if Access To Work and other support funds continue to be slashed.

Are Deaf characters simply not being created because writers don’t know enough about deaf life or society? Are they scared of not doing our community justice? I don’t think it can be this either – there are many different ways in which advice on authenticity could be sought.

Is it too difficult to have Deaf characters interacting with their hearing counterparts? I think this might be at least part of it.

In my experience, there is a narrow view on how deaf characters might communicate within a show, which limits them to scenes where an interpreter might feasibly be present. So, we don’t get any good backstory or fleshed-out characters, because it’s too hard to film them socialising. Unless they just sit at home, alone, plotting evil plots. Ooh, hello again stereotype.

Of course, I can’t speak for the industry as a whole. I can’t speak for all Deaf actors. I can’t even really speak for myself; I change my mind so often. But it does seem as though Deaf artists are facing a whole other set of barriers, just because our communication methods can be seen as ‘difficult’.

I’m not sure how we get round this. I’m not sure how exactly we blow their tiny minds and show them how awesome Deaf characters can be when played by Deaf actors. Particularly the ones where deafness has literally nothing to do with the storyline.

Sure, in Deaf media, we see this all the time – but why are we limited to our own in this way? Damn, we need to break into the public consciousness. Any ideas how we can do it?

Having said that, I’ll be doing some mainstream shizzle soon. If you have any great arguments for more Deaf characters, portrayed by great Deaf actors, fling them my way so I can pass them on. I’ll pin down the top bosses and force them to listen. I’ve no idea how it’s going to go down, but I’ll keep you posted.

It’ll probably involve jam.

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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