When Santina Muha appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2007, the producers asked which chair she’d rather use: her own, or the studio’s.
“I asked if anyone else in a wheelchair had ever been on the show,” said the actress, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident when she was 6 years old. “They said no, so I said, ‘I’ll stay in my wheelchair.’ ”
Days after the two-part episode aired, a woman told Muha that her young son, who also uses a wheelchair, was so inspired by seeing the actress on television, she let him stay home from school the next day to watch the conclusion.
“I was on TV for, like, 10 minutes, and I got fan mail from other countries,” Muha said. “Disability needs to be normalized.”
As debates rage over what characters should appear on screen, and who should portray them, disabilities have largely remained undiscussed. Meanwhile, conversations concerning on-screen representations involving gender, race and sexual orientation have gained so much traction in recent years, A-listers have abandoned roles in response to online outrage. Scarlett Johansson, for example, exited the upcoming drama “Rub and Tug” last year, after being criticized for her plans to portray a transgender character.
But more than a decade after Muha’s game-show appearance, people with disabilities remain the most proportionally underrepresented group on screen.
The disabled are, arguably, the largest minority in America, its 56.7 million members constituting nearly 20 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census. But a study from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that combed through 900 popular movies from 2007 to 2016 found that only 2.7 percent of characters with speaking roles were portrayed as disabled.
Things are slowly changing: Last year, Dwayne Johnson played an amputee in the action flick “Skyscraper,” and Joaquin Phoenix portrayed the late paralyzed Portland cartoonist John Callahan in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” But some advocates and actors with disabilities, such as Maysoon Zayid, an actress with cerebral palsy, have taken issue with this casting: They say only disabled actors should get these roles.
The latest movie to find itself in the center of the debate is “The Upside,” a remake of the beloved French film “The Intouchables,” which hit theaters this month. It stars Bryan Cranston as a wealthy but depressed quadriplegic who hires a cocky former convict, now a caregiver (Kevin Hart), to assist with his daily needs. Cranston’s character is paralyzed throughout the film, meaning there are no flashback or dream sequences. The role would have been perfect for a paralyzed actor, advocates say.
Early in the movie, Hart places Cranston in a wheelchair but forgets to buckle him in. A helpless Cranston begins falling, but is caught at the last second — a scene played entirely for laughs. The film is filled with such scenes: Hart aggressively feeding Cranston, a cringe-worthy catheter changing scene, Cranston crashing into waiters with his wheelchair. Advocates have admonished the portrayal, saying it’s “dehumanizing.”
“I was disappointed to see ‘The Upside’ come out, because we, as disability advocates, have been fighting against non-disabled actors playing visibly disabled character for decades now,” Zayid said. “We don’t feel like physical disability can be mimicked, can be played, can be mastered.”
Cranston defended his decision to take the role, telling the British Press Association: “As actors, we’re asked to play other people. If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual? I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that?” (His publicist did not issue a response to The Washington Post’s inquiries.)
Studios often cite the need to cast famous actors to make a movie bankable, but there aren’t many well-known disabled actors. Advocates say that’s because disabled actors rarely get the chance to star in a movie (because they aren’t famous). And, given the awards-bait nature of these roles — Eddie Redmayne, Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx have all won Oscars in the past two decades by playing visibly disabled characters — such roles are highly competitive.
When conversations about representation flare up and, just as quickly, die down, there are myriad reasons: Visible disabilities often make able-bodied people feel uncomfortable, something movie producers try to avoid. And the disabled community doesn’t speak as one voice. As actress Christine Bruno told The Post last year, “We are fragmented as a community because there are all different kinds of disabilities.”
“We are the last civil rights movement of our time. Everything else has sort of been addressed,” said Jenni Gold, a wheelchair-using director who made “CinemAbility,” a documentary about disability in Hollywood. “In a crowd scene, there often isn’t one person with a disability. If you don’t exist in that world of the film, how do you exist in real life?”
The conversation today feels louder than ever. The controversy surrounding “The Upside” even reached the ears of “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah who addressed it in lengthy monologue this month.
“My first instinct was . . . we’re going too far now. They’re actors. Actors are gonna act,” he said. But then a wheelchair-using actor, whose name Noah doesn’t mention, “completely opened my eyes” with something the actor wrote: “I understand what an actor is. I too am an actor. But I’m an actor in a wheelchair, and I never see parts that are leading roles for a person in a wheelchair. So the one time I see a role where there’s a person in a wheelchair, I think, ‘This could be it.’ . . . Because when you think about it on the flip side, they never call people with wheelchairs in to play able-bodied people.”
That’s what makes the casting of an actor such as Cranston in “The Upside” so frustrating to many advocates. As Gold said, “It was a perfect role to give someone a big break.”
Progress — however slight — is being made. Muha recently filmed an upcoming episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which her wheelchair was never mentioned. Zayid has two shows in the works. Ryan O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy, created and stars in an upcoming show on Netflix titled “Special.” This year’s Sundance Film Festival includes several movies featuring a variety of disabled characters, which was a priority for the fest’s leadership. The Yale School of Drama recently teamed up with the Ruderman Family Foundation to provide an annual scholarship for a disabled actor. Its inaugural recipient was Jessy Yates, an actor and comedian with cerebral palsy.
“For years, I did not think there was a place for people with visibly disabled bodies as performers and creators, and I discounted myself from the profession,” Yates said in a statement. “The training necessary for sustained careers in the arts is often not accessible to the disabled community.”
And days after the interview with Muha, “The Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil gave an interview with the Independent, in which she said she passed on a role to play a deaf woman, even though she was born partially deaf.
“I said it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take that role, and they should find a brilliant deaf woman to play that role. I think you have to make those choices and not be too greedy and make space rather than take space,” she told the tabloid
As Muha said, “I think it’s very slowly getting better, because it’s a conversation at all.”