“Cripping Up” is the Whitewashing of the Disabled, and It Needs to Stop

Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.”

I was looking at my computer screen, bewildered, shaking my head. After a month, only three actors had auditioned for the lead role for Cathedrals, a short film adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” that I’m directing. Usually, hundreds of eligible actors vie for a part. However, this part was different: I was looking for a blind actor.

“Cathedrals” on Kickstarter

We searched in LA, in NYC, and in a “dining in the dark” restaurant. Finally, I called Greg Shane, the creative director at Theater By the Blind. I told Greg we were having trouble finding actors for the project, and asked him if any of his stage actors were interested in auditioning for the film. He had one question for me: “Does it pay?”

It did, and it seemed to surprise him. He was very protective of his actors, because most of them were living below the poverty line and could really use the money. I was astounded by this, and when I got off the phone, I did the research myself. Some data suggests that about 70% of blind people are unemployed, and almost a third live in poverty.

And of course they do. It’s very hard for them to find work. Greg told me he was part of a Braille Institute program that used theater to help train blind people to get jobs.

“It was incredibly difficult. People would discount these individuals before they even walked into the interview.”

Many people are still mystified (myself included, three months ago) how blind people can use computers, let alone use them to be an asset. That’s why I’m a fan of organizations that educate employers about these advances in tech. It’s not that the most blind or disabled people are unqualified to work. It’s that most workplaces are unqualified to hire.

Blind and disabled actors have it hard in other ways. Greg told me another story. “I worked with an actor who was up for a lead role for a feature film and she was totally blind, and the producer decided that they wanted to go with a sighted character because they thought it was more commercial, a name actor.”

Abigail Breslin in The Miracle Worker

In The Miracle Worker, Abigail Breslin played Helen Keller, and more recently, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, actor Mike Rowe played an autistic character. Not only is this “whitewashing” of disabled actors not discouraged; in many cases, such as Eddie Redmayne winning a Golden Globe for his Stephen Hawking portrayal, it’s applauded. The practice even has it’s own name: “cripping up.”

While films and theater companies undoubtedly want to reap the accolades and ticket sales from a big name actor “cripping up,” this practice robs the opportunity from people who really need it, people it purports to honor. Rowe himself noted in an email to the Guardian, “All too often we learn about autism from non-autistic people instead of going straight to the source.”

Rick Boggs

Instead of complaining, I’m doing something to change that. We’ve cast Rick Boggs, blind since age 5, to play the lead role in Cathedrals. We’re also donating proceeds to Theater by the Blind and the Hearts for Sight Foundation, an organization that increases employment opportunities for the blind through health and nutrition. (We only have until September 9th, 2016 to reach our fundraising goal. Visit our Kickstarter!)

Originally, I set out to cast a blind actor for authenticity’s sake. But after realizing how rare that was, and realizing some of the injustices done to the blind and disabled, I felt invigorated to do something more. I am no longer interested in just making a good film. I want to do make some good, too.

Meeting Rick at his house