“She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, Essay 23 of #52essays2017

In my last essay inspired by attending the NYC Disability Pride Parade, I presented a small rant on the dearth of actors with disabilities representing themselves on television. And I got to thinking about how, in a troubling landscape, I can say with as few sour grapes as possible, that the blind actor is pretty much non-existent, excepting of course in a certain Vanda commercial starring me!

Blindness is a very weird disability since, without the accoutrements of white cane or guide dog, it doesn’t look like much, which is why, I suppose, I receive comments on the Vanda iSpot page doubting my authenticity. Here’s an example from George:

“Doesn’t look blind to me. Her eyes are following the action. She at least has some vision.”

And another from Rhonda:

“This is an actor!!! They need real blind people. They stopped this one with the actor woman. Now they have an Afganastan [sic] vet.”

For some reason, Ronda believes in the vet, but not me, the assumption is that the vet is a real blind person, which in fact he is. Mike and I shot our commercials at the same time and chatted during lunch once. But why getting blinded in war is more credible than having an eye disease remains a mystery.

I am not alone in being denied authenticity. On Molly’s Dove Shower Foam iSpot page, I read a comment from Roseanne:

“don’t think she’s blind”

And another from Carol:

“Same she doesn’t look hummm noract like any actual blind person I know and I have friends and family blind from infancy to loss of sight from wound in war to elderly! And lost sight even to being diabedic [sic]. She doesn’t appear to act in any way as they do”

Spelling mistakes and typos aside, I accept these comments as representative of a certain percentage of the American sighted population. Happily for Molly (and human kind), there are others who believe. Someone took the time to Google her and discovered her authenticity. From Shelley:

“I googled it and I think her name is Molly Burke and she has retinitis pigmentosis [pigmentosa]. You gradually lose your eye sight when you have that. My grandma had it along with two of her sisters. She was declared blind in 1967 but didn’t completely lose all her sight until 10 or so years later.”

Indeed Molly Burke is authentic and has a popular YouTube channel in which she talks about life with blindness.

I wonder if others in the disabled world get victimized by such able-bodied scrutiny. Probably. And yet there are disabilities that are hard to fake. No one doubts that Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, is the real deal.

Part of the problem is that able-bodied actors have been portraying and often winning Academy Awards for their performances of disabilities for so long that seeing someone who is actually disabled defying stereotypes–not looking blind, for example–that when they see the real thing, they doubt the authenticity and somehow feel duped. It’s odd that people cannot imagine a real blind actor, but only real blind people, as if actors were not also people.

For my Celebrating People With Disabilities in Film and Television article I wrote for NYFA earlier this month, I was delighted to find enough actors with disabilities that I could not fit them all into my space limitations. However, beyond the TV ads, I had to stretch for a blind actor.

 

Kitty McGeever starred in the long-running “Emmerdale,” but sadly died age 48 as a result of many health issues. McGeever was the first blind actor to star in a British soap. Having trained at RADA, she lost her sight at the age of 33, shortly before winning her role on “Emmerdale.” She described her character as “naughty” and “manipulative in the extreme” to the BBC, and added, Lizzy “uses her disability to her advantage and then disregards it to her advantage whenever and whichever way she chooses.

 

There’s also a young French actor Melchior Derouet, who starred opposite Natalie Portman in Paris Je T’aime. Here’s a fun Hollywood Reporter article about him navigating Cannes.

When I was called to audition for the part of Reba on NBC’s Hannibal, I dreamed of not just the stardom and money, but the idea of doing talk shows and the like, speaking as myself to a mass audience of sighted people about my particular flavor of blindness. How delicious, I thought, and important, to offer a perspective that might not square with the usual perceptions! I also imagined insisting on the importance of having people represent themselves on TV, providing more nuanced and authentic representations, representations that have behind them, at least to some extent, experience that reaches beyond stereotypes. This is important not only regards viewers but also the immense cast and crews on a television or film set.

The director of the Vanda ads, Malcolm Venville, told me on our first day of shooting that how I moved was so interesting. That it was so different from how a sighted person moved, and yet subtle and not what you see in the media–not superhuman and not slapstick. The cast and crew’s experience of a blind actor can only help to explode stigmatic portrayals. There is hardly a mainstream blind actor working today, and yet the portrayal of blindness is practically a staple on the TV series, where main characters are struck blind at alarming rates, usually just before jumping the shark–yes, I’ve got Fonzie’s Blindness in mind.

But things they are a changing, and I’m excited for the blind kids coming up. Soon, I hope, it will be as frowned upon to have a blind character played by a sighted as to run around in blackface. But for now, we must be satisfied with pharmaceutical ads and training videos… Below you can watch my friend George Ashiotis and I tell poll workers how to treat people who are blind!

 

*This is #23 of #52essays2017. Check out #22 Disability Pride Parades Matter 2, about my happy march up Broadway flying my freak flag with thousands of others!*

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Disability Pride Parades Matter II: people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood, #22 of #52essays2017

Last year I wrote about why Disability Pride Parades Matter, from a bookish perspective since I unfortunately did not make it to the parade. This year, I did make it and was very pleased to run into friends including my old pals from Lighthouse Guild Music School! They may never forgive me for flubbing my chance to distinguish the Lighthouse from amongst the hundreds of other disabilities organizations in my impromptu loudspeaker announcement, but perhaps this video mitigates somewhat. Anyway, please excuse my excitable camera guy, who got a little nervous when I took the mic–he’s a much better singer composer!)

As an actor and writer for New York Film Academy, I’m acutely aware of the challenges actors with disabilities face. So it was exciting for me and many others to have Micah Fowler of the current hit TV show “Speechless” grand marshal this year’s Disability Pride Parade.

Born with cerebral palsy, Fowler started acting when he was five. In a Vulture interview Fowler said, “I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that “Speechless,” a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability.”

Although Fowler and other young actors with disabilities such as Lauren Potter who played Becky Jackson on Fox’s hit show “Glee” and Jamie Brewer who played several recurring roles on “American Horror Story,” including Nan in “Coven,” who both have Down Syndrome, offer viewers the glimmer of a new trend of hiring actors with disabilities, things are still pretty dismal.

According to a Variety article informed by a 2016 study released by Ruderman White Paper, “95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors,”

The study was commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and took a comprehensive look at employment of actors with disabilities in television, and reveals that “people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood.”

In all of this, there is a need for activism and a push for hiring practices to shift, but there are also things disabled people can do for themselves by themselves. A good example is marching in disability pride parades, because they bring bunches of disabilities into the public eye.

I could have wished that there were a few more people along the parade route yesterday, but there were a whole lot of people marching, and it felt good, though, I believe it was a little lacking in spectacle–a few too many matching t-shirts, if you ask me. I think we need to rip a page off the gay pride parade handbook. We need costumes and we need floats! I have big plans for a braille dress next year! But of course, Gay Pride has got a few decades on us.

Daryl Mitchell, who stars in NCIS New Orleans, was an established actor before a 2001 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. With support from friends, including Denzel Washington and Chris Tucker, he has continued his career and now stars in “NCIS: New Orleans.” He is an advocate for employing actors with disabilities. In an Ability Magazine interview Mitchell says, “You meet with these Labor Department guys, and you can tell everybody is enthused and ready to go. That’s the main thing, really. Their willingness to fly out from Washington and see us in Los Angeles and speak with us says a lot about them. But it’s really a matter of what we need to do, what we’re willing to do as people with disabilities. We need to be more boisterous. We need to let the world know that we’re here.”

So here’s to boisterous disabled people, costumed and bejeweled, marching in the Disability Pride Parade 2018!

*This is #22 of #52essays2017. Read #21 Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and the Buffoon of Saint-Ovide in which I wax nostalgic about my NYU library adventures and another kind of spectacle!*

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