Disabled Actors Deserve To Blend Into The Background, Too

When I saw the wheelchair in the opening episode of “Fool Me Once,” I assumed that this would factor in to how the mystery played out. I was wrong.
Maddie Abuyuan / HuffPost

Towards the end of the first episode of Netflix’s newest Harlan Coben series, “Fool Me Once,” I animatedly turned to my wife and shouted “Look! A wheelchair user!” The scene was a backyard picnic, with two shots of a character in her wheelchair, and a few other shots where her wheelchair was not visible. It certainly wasn’t a moment calling for an Emmy, but the simplicity of it is precisely why I was so enthusiastic.

Released at the top of the year, “Fool Me Once” is an eight-part British television series by Quay Street Productions as part of a multimillion dollar, five-year contract that Coben signed with the streaming service Netflix. Under the deal, Coben will serve as executive producer to adapt 14 of his novels into Netflix Originals. The show follows Maya Stern, played by Michelle Keegan, a recently widowed woman who is looking into the mystery of how her recently murdered husband appears in her nanny-cam footage several weeks after his funeral.

It has gone on to become the ninth most-watched Netflix series of all time with 92.1 million viewers as of last week. Like most of Coben’s work on Netflix, the show is full of twists and plenty of long-hidden secrets. But thankfully, disability isn’t the source of either of these.

My level of excitement may have been a bit much for such a small moment in such a large-scale production, but I’ve become very well attuned to such things. I’m a wheelchair user myself, an actor, and a professor of theater who studies portrayals of disability. So I eagerly watched to see whether this wheelchair-using character would appear again in the series.

But she didn’t.

Ironically, this made me all the more appreciative of the moment. A wheelchair-user being cast as an extra is in many ways just as groundbreaking as being cast as a series regular. Just a few short years ago, many casting directors were hesitant to cast actors with visible disabilities even in small roles.

In 2016, I was at an auditioning workshop for disabled actors organized by the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities Committee. One of the attendees, an actor with only one hand, asked the Hollywood casting director in attendance why actors with disabilities aren’t cast in small roles. There are thousands upon thousands of smaller roles in film and television every year, and landing just a few of these would give much needed experience and paychecks to disabled actors.

The casting director’s response was difficult for us all to hear: “We have about 45 minutes to tell the story in a drama and we don’t have time to explain a disability. If a bank teller only has one arm, the audience is going to pick up on that and wonder why they only have one arm. We can’t take time away from the story to give the disabled character’s backstory.”

Out of deference to audiences who are accustomed to disability acting as a marker for some other character trait or expository purpose, disabled actors have been excluded from even the smallest of roles. Their failure to be cast in smaller roles wasn’t even a matter of inability or inexperience. It was because disability, in its history of absence, becomes disproportionately noticeable when present.

When I saw the wheelchair in the opening episode of “Fool Me Once,” I too, despite my background, assumed that this would factor in to how the mystery played out. But I was wrong.

In placing disabled actors into minor roles, disability is progressively being treated as a normal aspect of human variation like differences in height, hair color, or body size.

There were in fact several other moments featuring disability that also went without explanation. In Episode 3, Rachel Denning, an actor with dwarfism, steals the scene as a disgruntled receptionist fed up with her absentee boss. The entire population of a childcare center in Episode 6 has Down syndrome. Episode 8 features a cameo by Natalie Amber, as an IT specialist in the police station. Amber’s nasogastric tube is readily apparent in her scenes but the other characters never mention or focus on it. Refreshingly, none of these characteristics is made a plot point.

In placing disabled actors into minor roles, disability is progressively being treated as a normal aspect of human variation, like differences in height, hair color or body size.

In screenwriting there is the principle of Chekhov’s gun — the idea that every element of a story must be necessary and irrelevant elements should be removed. If a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the second act — otherwise, it shouldn’t be on the wall in the first place.

Despite its ubiquity in the natural world, disability is often missing from film and theater and can stand out as a Chekhov’s gun. When disability is present, it often signifies there will be some grand reveal towards the end of the story, such as in “Scream of Fear” (1961) or “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962). The irony, of course, is that viewers might focus on disability in part because a lack of integration and representation has made disabled actors rare and even more noticeable.

And so, the integration of unexplained disability into “Fool Me Once” is significant. Casting disabled actors in minor roles is a major development — and everyone in a position of power in the film industry should be paying attention.


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