White Men Can’t Jump and People with Disabilities Can’t Act

Dear readers – you may have noticed that recently I slyly inserted a second weekly post. It is distributed, like this one, every Monday evening. They are excerpts from a new book I’m writing. The book, not yet named, will offer lessons from the world of disability for thriving and surviving in turbulent times. ~ Al

Portraying characters who experience a mental, physical or emotional disability is one sure way to win an Oscar.

If you get nominated you have a 50% chance of winning the golden statue. Here is a list of those that have.

Provided you don’t have a disability.

Everyone knows the reason why.

Acting is just one of a long list of things you can’t do if you have a disability.

Unless you are: Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God or West Wing, RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad, Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones, Chris Burke in Life Goes On, Micah Fowler in Speechless, Lauren Potter in Glee, Niall McNeil playwright and star of King Arthur’s Night and Michael J. Fox in numerous films and shows. I’m sure you get the picture! Of course it’s a silly stereotype that people with disabilities can’t act, direct, write, compose, produce or anything else for that matter. Silly but it casts a sinister shadow.

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, yet the most underrepresented on screen. Here’s what Marlee Matlin has to say about this exclusion, “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.” And a mere 0.5 of characters with disabilities have a speaking role.

UK film professor Paul Darke says: “Mainstream culture survives and thrives by plagiarizing the margins.”

Those margins are wide.

Wider than what passes for “able” in mainstream culture.

Wider than the screen falsehoods associated with disability.

People with disabilities are joining together to resist this structural unfairness. Britain’s The Fourteen Percent led by Justin Edgar is one example. They want to end the stereotypical portrayal of people with disabilities as victims, villains, martyrs or super humans. Fourteen per cent is as good a number as any. In Canada it represents the prevalence of disability among Canadians 15 years or older.

At last night’s Oscars winner Frances McDormand suggested adding an inclusion rider to film and tv contracts. It would stipulate that at least 50 per cent of the cast and crew are women or people of colour. 

Great idea. Here’s a friendly amendment to the inclusion goal:

Ensure that at least 14% of the talent used to create film and tv shows are people with disabilities.

I’m confident that’s a jump white men can make. Especially if we consumers support content that fairly portrays the diversity of society. 


  1. Here’s an irony. Although the word inclusion has been around for a long time, the inclusion movement hasn’t. The spark began in Toronto in 1989, lit by folks from the world of disability including Judith Snow, Jack Pearpoint and Marsha Forest.
  2. Want to learn more. See this report  Inequality in 900 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT and Disability from 2007 – 2016.


As a 48 year old brown theatre guy, I cried during the 2018 Oscar’s diversity tribute. But where were the artists with disabilities? All the inclusion talk means a lot less without them. ~ Marcus Youssef who just won the most prestigious theatre prize in Canada, the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize.

Musical selection this post is Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me sung by Victoria based, award winning jazz singer Joe Coughlin.


Yayoi Kusama’s Path to Infinity

Cultural Transformation, One Baby Gerber Step at a Time

Eyes Wide Shut, Carmen Papalia’s Guide to Democracy

“Saving” Ryan

Mental Fitness Touches a Nerve in Everyone

You Can Learn Lots about Social Innovation from the World of Disability

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

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