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‘Not much has changed’: Actress Marlee Matlin on Hollywood’s portrayal of people with disabilities

Marlee Matlin arrives at the Tony Awards at the Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016, in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences broadened its membership this year with 683 new members in response to #OscarsSoWhite. The effort to increase diversity in Hollywood seemed to have yielded positive results. This year saw an increase in films starring, written and directed by people of color. Notably, “Moonlight,” about a black man grappling with his sexuality throughout his life, beat the Goliath “La La Land” for best picture (in a most spectacular fashion).

One group, though, remains so excluded from the proceedings that it seems few even discuss it —  disabled people.

It’s been 30 years since Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for best actress in “Children of a Lesser God,” about the romantic but fraught relationship between a speech teacher at a small school for the deaf and a young deaf school janitor, played by Matlin, who is indeed deaf.

This year, she was honored with the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion for her advocacy for people with disabilities.

No disabled actor has won an Oscar since Matlin’s 1987 victory. Yet since 1989, the majority of Best Actor Oscars have gone to men playing the sick or disabled, as The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer pointed out last year. Even though this year’s winner — Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea” — doesn’t have a physical disability, his character is clearly beset by post-traumatic stress disorder.

It isn’t just the Oscars, either. The gap between the number of disabled Americans and their on-screen representation is perhaps larger than with any other group of people.

As of 2010, 56.7 million people in America lived with some form of disability, according to the United States Census Bureau. Half of those people described their disability as “severe.”

“In television and film only one percent of roles reflect a character with a disability. And of this one percent, only five percent of those roles are played by actors with a disability,” Matlin told The Washington Post in an email interview, citing statistics from a white paper released by The Ruderman Family Foundation in 2016.

According to the paper, 95 percent of characters with disabilities are portrayed by able-bodied actors, even though, as the Atlantic noted in 2014, there were 2,200 actors who self-identified as having a disability registered with popular casting agency Actors Access.

Furthermore, a 2005 study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild found that a mere 0.5 percent of characters with disabilities have a speaking role.

This lack of representation hasn’t earned a its own hashtag.

“In all the conversations, from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite to current discussions about expanding the media landscape to be more inclusive and diverse, there have been only a handful of people talking about the lack of inclusion of people with disabilities,” Matlin told The Post.

Her frustration goes beyond simple casting. “When there are character/roles with a disability, they are usually ABOUT being disabled. Even worse, the roles, for the most part, are played by actors who are NOT disabled,” Matlin said, “Where is the authenticity there?

” … I’m fortunate in that I’ve nurtured relationships with producers where we go beyond the ‘dis’ in disability,” she said, “and create smart, creative roles that HAPPEN to be disabled (e.g. Joey Lucas in “The West Wing,”), rather than dwell on the disability. But unfortunately, I am the exception and not the rule. … In the 30 years since I won the Academy Award for Best Actress and as the first person since Harold Russell who had a disability and who won an acting Oscar back in the ’50s, not much has changed.”

Others agree, such as disabled author Scott Jordan Harris who wrote in Slate about Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking, who suffers from ALS. Wrote Harris:

The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!’ Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.

In an industry often apologizing for casting white actors as people of color, the same cannot be said for casting able-bodied actors as disabled characters. As Harris wrote on

Consider “Glee”, a TV show unmistakably self-satisfied with its inclusiveness. Its makers would never have considered having Rachel, the female lead, played by a man in drag. They would not have considered having Mercedes, the most prominent black character, played by a white actress in blackface. But when they cast Artie, the main disabled character, they chose an able-bodied actor and had him sit in a wheelchair and ape the appearance of a disabled person. … To many in the disabled community, whether an able-bodied actor is convincing to other able-bodied people when playing a disabled person is immaterial. The ugly spectacle of it is fundamentally offensive.

The industry certainly has made some strides. An example often cited was “Breaking Bad,” which featured actor RJ Mitte, an actor with mild cerebral palsy portraying Walt Jr., a character with the same. But the circumstances surrounding his casting were unique.

Mitte’s mother originally dissuaded him from acting specifically because landing parts seemed overwhelmingly difficult. “When he started acting, I didn’t know if I wanted him to go through the emotional thing of getting turned down,” his mother Dyna told the Los Angeles Times.

When he pursued the craft anyway, as he told Ability magazine, he was lucky to meet “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, whose close college friend suffered from cerebral palsy — and served as an inspiration. Mitte said, “Vince told me, ‘When I first wrote Walt, Jr., I intended to have a person with the disability play this character.’”

That isn’t generally the case. And the cycle can often be self-fulfilling, as studios want to cast well-known actors in their film. It’s the classic first-job issue — studios want experience but often aren’t willing to open the door to give a first timer the chance to get it.

“Playing disability is a considered a technical skill for an actor, and casting directors and producers prefer to seek non-disabled actors with long track records,” Howard Sherman, director of the Alliance for the Inclusion of Arts, told the Atlantic.

A solution, of course, would be for people to see those with disabilities beyond their physical characteristics.

While Matlin is deaf, she said, “I am only living with a disability if I choose to let people treat me as if I have a disability,” pointing out the various methods of communication at her disposal (lip-reading, signing, texting, videophone).

“It’s only those who see me as ‘disabled’ and label me as such that I have a problem,” she said. “And it has nothing to do with my lack of hearing; it has to do with their lack of understanding that I can do anything — except hear.”

This post has been updated to note it has been 30 years since a disabled actor has won an Oscar.