Article from The Observer - November 15, 2009
By AMELIA HILLThe mother of the first actress with Asperger's syndrome to play a fictional character with the condition has launched a campaign to stop actors "playing disabled".
Lizzy Clark (pictured) was 14 when the BBC asked her to play the part of Poppy, a teenage girl with Asperger's, in the television film Dustbin Baby, starring Dakota Blue Richards and Juliet Stevenson. Based on Jacqueline Wilson's novel of the same name, the film has been shortlisted for an International Emmy, a British Academy children's award and the Bafta Kids' Vote awards. The award ceremonies will take place next week.
Lizzy's mother, Nicola Clark, has said that employing actors who are not mentally disabled to play characters with neurological impairments should stop. It is the "blacking-up of the 21st century", she said. "We need to break down these barriers. They're unacceptable and indefensible in a modern-day society, especially when there are so many good, disabled actors who are both ready, eager and able to take on these parts."
Lizzy, who had never acted professionally before her part in Dustbin Baby, said: "My Asperger's made some things on the film set difficult at first, like dealing with the sudden noise of the storyboard, but I was soon so focused on acting that I didn't notice anything else.
"It is not just mentally disabled actors who lose out when non-disabled people are employed to act them. Audiences think they are getting an authentic portrayal of a mentally disabled person, but they're not. It's not like putting on a different accent or learning what it was like to be raised in a different era. You can't understand what it is like to have a mental disability unless you've really lived with it. When non-disabled people try to portray us, they tend to fall back on stereotypes that have done our community so much harm in the past."
According to Independent Television Commission research, 79% of viewers would not mind if a disabled person read the evening news. Six in 10 say that disabled people should appear in a wider variety of roles, including as presenters. There are, however, signs that the tide is slowly turning in favour of Clark's "Don't play me – pay me!" campaign. EastEnders recently introduced David Proud, who was born with spina bifida, as Adam Best, the first character in the show to use a wheelchair in real life.
The move is part of a series of measures by the BBC intended to raise the profile of disabled actors and performers. Next week it will start a nationwide search for disabled actors and performers for drama, comedy and children's shows. It will also launch an online directory of disabled talent, with the support of the acting union Equity and Spotlight, the casting directory. "Innovations like this are promising, but I would question whether disabled actors will be used in greater numbers simply because their contact details have been made easier for directors and producers to find," said Clark. "Society regards people with mental disabilities with such extreme stigma, and attributes them with such insulting and misleading stereotypes, that most casting directors would not even consider employing someone with a mental disability."
Clark is setting up a forum for all mentally disabled actors, where they can be encouraged and supported. The forum will also generate publicity through public events and debates.
In another sign that Clark has launched her campaign at a turning point, Channel 4 will next week launch Cast Offs, a comedy drama about the making of a Survivor-type reality TV programme featuring physically disabled characters. Created by Jack Thorne, who has written for Shameless and Skins, Tony Roche, who has written for The Thick Of It, and Alex Bulmer, the programme features thalidomide victims, dwarfism and the face-disfiguring cherubism, a rare genetic disorder.
Clark wants to see a similar commitment to how mental disability is portrayed. "At the moment mentally disabled actors only appear on our screens in plot lines revolving entirely around their disability, and generally only in scenarios where they need to be rescued from something to do with their disability by a non-disabled protagonist… We want to see disabled actors playing parts where the least interesting thing about them is their disability."
Clark expects a long battle. She points to the decision by the British Board of Film Classification to warn viewers that the comedy Special People featured disabled people. "Giving the film a 'disability theme', as though we have to be warned away from disabled people, was bizarre," said the film's director, Justin Edgar.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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Robert Mann BA (Hons)