“A lot of times if I am signing [in an audition], the question is, ‘Can you speak [aloud]?’” explained choreographer and performer Alexandria Wailes at BroadwayCon’s Disabilities Onstage panel. “I do. I typically assess the room and make my decision on whether or not there’s a need for it. When I speak [aloud], people are like, ‘You speak so well! It’s wonderful!’ And there’s that experience of being so touched. In some ways that takes away from my work as an actor because they fixate on this ‘miracle’ of speech happening with my deafness. It’s like, ‘Calm down. Come back down to Earth. I just want this job, please.’”
Wailes, along with performers Mat Fraser (American Horror Story: Freak Show), Sarah Folkins (New York Deaf Theatre’s Titus Andronicus), and Anthony Michael Lopez (Broad City), discussed how, oftentimes, performers with disabilities are seen as what they call “inspiration porn” (when people reduce people with disabilities to an inspirational narrative as opposed to seeing them as three-dimensional human beings).
“I’ve definitely felt the inspiration narrative—not only onstage, but also in life,” said Folkins. “People meet you and immediately assume that there’s a sad narrative to your life, and that that’s the overriding issue in your life. I want to start seeing narratives where [people with disabilities] are written as full-fledged human beings.” Folkins, who is a little person, explained that when she auditions for roles that are entirely based around her height, she wonders why every other aspect of the characters’ lives are completely overlooked. She also mentioned that she would like to see more established characters portrayed by actors with disabilities, and feels that adding that element would make the stories fresh and interesting. “If I’m playing Juliet, what does that mean for me?” she asked. “And what does that mean for my Romeo?” Fraser agreed and asked the audience what roles they would like to see performers with disabilities play.
Lopez said that while he hasn’t experienced much of the inspiration narrative, he has played a lot of characters with stories not similar to his own. “I’ve played a lot of veterans who have had their legs blown off,” he started. “I was born with a messed-up leg, so I don’t know what it’s like to lose a limb. I’m happy to play all of those roles, but I feel like maybe I’m the wrong person to represent these people.”
“I feel like as a woman of color who happens to be deaf, I am a walking political statement,” joked Wailes. She explained that, typically, if she discovers that a role is only being used as “inspiration porn,“ she will turn it down. However, if there is a valid reason for it, such as showing the audience a journey or perspective change within the character, she will consider it.
While he doesn’t mind playing characters with disabilities (if they are written accurately), Fraser would like to make one thing clear to audiences and industry professionals alike: “[If you can get] an audience to transcend how they feel about your body and get them to engage with your character, then you’ve done the job because they connected with your human condition…We [may not] get to play normal roles, but we all have normal hopes, dreams, and desires.”