Posted by: stelladuffy | July 16, 2012

Writing the invisible visible – AND doing it well.

Recently my brilliant friend, actor, improviser and writer Lisa Hammond, was invited to give a speech for the TV Drama Writers’ Festival, as part of BBC WritersRoom. Lisa was asked to speak to writers about they can better write characters who are disabled. Or, indeed, given the invisibility of disability on our screens (and our stages and our pages), how they can write characters who are disabled at all. Lisa gave the speech last week and I thought it was so good, and so useful to writers, so encouraging for writers, that I asked if I could share it on my blog. Here you go.


I have to say that when asked to write a statement on this subject, all at the same time I felt that it was an incredibly complex issue and an overwhelmingly simple one to fix!

Here’s the simple way to fix it – Write characters that are foremost human (as you normally would) with all their beautiful neuroses and cast a good actor who happens to have a disability in a percentage of those roles … simple. You will get a realistic portrayal because first and foremost disabled people are human and experience as wide a range of dramas as anyone else would. I truly believe if this happened it would change the world and well, we could all just go home right now!

This currently doesn’t happen…

In my own experience/opinion this is why it doesn’t it happen:

1. Fear of writers feeling they might get it “wrong” or that they have to be some sort of expert, or that the story would have to be centred around the impairment of the character and worries about if the script would go down well with the executives.

A suggestion to move away from that fear:

The best representation – the most groundbreaking – is a hands off one – the character with the disability does not have to have a story written around that disability… they or others they talk to in the story do not have to discuss why they are the way they are. Or why they are bitter because of the way they are. Or why they are an inspiration because they are the way they are. I know loads of disabled people and believe me their impairment is usually the least of their worries. It’s their human stories/problems that are the juicy and dramatic parts of their lives!!

And if you DO want the character’s impairment to be the focus, think about why?

And if you are still convinced, just try to avoid massive clichés most of which are covered online when you type in “disability representation in the media” and do a bit of light research on the clichés. Or I would urge you to watch a short film called “Code of the Freaks” which is about representation of disabled characters in Hollywood, which you can get online. It’s an eye opener!

2. Okay, the Fear from executives/producers, I think they are afraid of how “their audiences” might react, what “statement it would be making” about the drama/programme, the costs and access requirements of employing disabled actors …

Suggestion – well, in this risk-averse age it’s difficult to take a punt, but have trust that your audience WILL accept it, play to that audience’s intelligence rather than their ignorance. Yes, I’m not stupid or deluded – there might be a moment where someone sitting watching telly might think ohh she looks weird or – ohhh he’s got a funny leg/eye/face whatever … but if the story is good and the acting is good they will accept it and even forget it. And that’s the same thing when dealing with “What statement is it making” if we cast a disabled actor in that role without mentioning their condition? The only statement you will be making is that people with disabilities have normal, sometimes wild, sometimes dull, sometimes insignificant, sometimes painful lives, just like anyone else …

3. Fear from casting directors that they do not know where to get good disabled actors from, that the pool of people is small and limited, fear that it wouldn’t sit well with executives/producers and the access implications /costs of running a disability aware audition process …

Suggestions: There ARE talented actors and actresses out there … If casting directors were to adopt “impairment blind casting” much as people do with “colour blind casting” then believe me you would see them come out of the woodwork! Often when a call goes out for a disabled actor – the casting is so very limited – because the part has been written specifically about that impairment it’s heavily marked that the story revolves around it – so the pool is massively reduced into what choice you have with the actors you can audition. I’ve often gone up for “wheelchair user” roles and haven’t got the job because they’ve said I’m also small so they think that doesn’t seem “authentic”, or indeed been up for roles where they are casting someone with short stature and because I use a wheelchair I’m too disabled, not small. I once got called “too tall to be small” in an audition! Try to be more open around this! If it was a character that has a disability but it wasn’t a pivotal plot point – what does it matter what impairment they have?

4. Fear from directors feeling like they wouldn’t know how to direct a disabled actor and or having a set that is geared up to a person with a disability…

Suggestion- get over it! The actor is a professional.

5. Fear from agents who represent the actors with disabilities about pushing their clients to be seen for “normal roles” within their casting brackets or requesting that their client needs access to a building or audition process – they get put off – they don’t want to “rock the boat” in their relationship with the casting director…

Suggestion: Also get over it! Rock the boat! Mix it up and explain to the casting departments that your client would be great for the job and needs to be given the chance to audition. Just to put that into perspective, disabled actors get around 2 auditions a year for TV compared to their peers (with a similar CV but no disability) around 20 auditions…

6. And one that is close to my heart –
Fear from actors – that they do not want to mention that the script/language/plot/character is clichéd because it’s so rare to get an opportunity they don’t want to come across as difficult or political – they want to work!

Suggestion: If we all took our part in the fight to change in our various roles within our industry, it wouldn’t be so frustrating and tiring for the actor to produce the answers always, or feeling like they are gaining a bit of a “reputation”. It is important for actors to tread the line carefully between being an actor and an activist! Be light about it – but DO mention the issues. How will anyone know if you don’t open up the conversation? How will it change?

This brings us to cost/access worries – remember that the actor you will either be auditioning and or working with will have loads of experience with their specific impairment – simply ask them! It is THEIR responsibility to tell you what they need and to take care of the specifics of their needs – it’s not for you to be guessing or worrying about!

They’re usually incredibly resourceful as we live in a world that is not accessible – so we deal with it ALL the time! For example I’ve worked in theatres that have been wheelchair accessible front of house but not backstage – we get round it. I’ve had to do auditions in cafés, my mate had to do an audition on the corner of Oxford St once! When I have auditions at Spotlight casting, I can’t reach the lift buttons so I have fashioned a retractable stick, which is now “my Spotlight stick”… Some disabled actors when they are on set have to have a trailer that’s accessible – they don’t really exist – so my friend had a horsebox as a trailer?! Hahah! We have a sense of humour and realize things aren’t perfect…

Please don’t let fear of all those unknowns put you into a place where you step away and decide it’s too much of a headfuck, the media is so powerful, we desperately need things to change – and EVERY single one of you can do something practical to help that happen.


  1. I’ve waited years to hear someone else say this. I’m fed up with disabled characters only being there to do a plotline about some disability issue. In my life I’ve been through relationships, break ups, attempts to ‘win me back’, a flood in my house, relocating 100 miles from where I was born, none of this due to my disability. However my acting work is generally restricted to writer’s beliefs of issues they believe I face! Fortunately I have been lucky enough to work with a few directors and writers who were more interested in my acting talents.

  2. Great. I’m glad Lisa’s piece said what you were looking for.

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