Stories about people with disabilities are flooding the big screen this year, but nearly none feature actual disabled talent.
With the help of CGI, Jake Gyllenhaal transformed into Jeff Bauman for Stronger (in theaters now), which tells the true story of a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and learned to walk again with prosthetic limbs. In Breathe (now showing), another real-life drama, Andrew Garfield spends most of the film in a wheelchair as Robin Cavendish, a man paralyzed from the neck down by polio.
Both actors are considered strong awards contenders, following the path of stars such as Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), who won Oscars playing disabled men.
Two other recent movies feature blind protagonists: Blind, with Alec Baldwin, whose character falls in love with his volunteer caretaker, and All I See Is You (in theaters Friday), starring Blake Lively, a psychological thriller about a woman who regains her sight. Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck (now in New York and Los Angeles, nationwide Nov. 10) centers on deaf characters, only one of whom is played by a deaf actress (14-year-old newcomer Millicent Simmonds).
Despite its inspirational story and life-affirming message, Stronger received backlash on social media, with people calling Gyllenhaal's casting as a double amputee "sad" and a "mimicry of disabled people," and using the hashtag #authenticitymatters. Blind was similarly criticized by disability rights organization Ruderman Family Foundation, whose president Jay Ruderman released a statement saying that casting Baldwin was just "the latest example of treating disability as a costume."
"There's a movement in Hollywood to have more diversity," Ruderman tells USA TODAY. "That conversation is centered a lot around race and has left disability out of it. You're not going to see a white actor playing a black role, but it's routinely Oscar material for someone to play disability and it's inauthentic."
Last year, the foundation's Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television analysis found that while the disabled account for nearly 20% of the U.S. population, fewer than 2% of TV characters do. (Of those, 95% are played by able-bodied actors.)
An Inequality in 800 Popular Films report released by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism last fall found similarly discouraging statistics in movies, where just 2.4% of characters in the top 100 films who had speaking roles or were identified by name were disabled. The overwhelming majority of disabled characters were either supporting (54.3%) or inconsequential roles (32.4%).
For films such as Stronger and Breathe, which depict their protagonists before they become physically handicapped, the possibility of casting disabled actors wasn't considered. Stronger director David Gordon Green sparked outrage when he told the U.K.'s Metro newspaper that he's "sure there are wonderfully talented amputees ... that could have given extremely skilled performances. But Jake was just the one that I always had in my mind."
With Breathe, "it was never a discussion," Garfield says. "The story that was written required an able-bodied actor at the beginning. Jonathan (Cavendish, Robin's son and a Breathe producer) thought it was very important that they showed his dad pre-polio as well as post-polio and that journey felt vital."
Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck received backlash on social media last year, with people using the hashtag #DeafTalent to express their concerns that two major deaf parts — played by Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley — had been filled by hearing actors. The online outcry wasn't lost on Moore, who spent two months learning American Sign Language for the movie.
"It was a conversation I had with Todd — it was a real concern," Moore says. "I don't know if I knew and understood what I understand now that I would have done (the role). I think I'd feel differently.
"That being said, I'm so grateful for the opportunity that I had and what I learned, because I'm not exposed to deaf culture; I'm not exposed to deaf people ever," she continues. "So for me, it was illuminating. I wouldn't trade that experience, but now I also have an understanding of why something like that would be so disappointing to people."
Haynes, who has made three previous films with Moore, says he needed to cast the Oscar winner in order to have a "draw." Along with casting the unknown Simmonds in a significant role, he also notes that six other deaf actors appear in Wonderstruck's black-and-white, silent-movie portion.
"We had some practical needs for getting the film financed and she really is the only star" outside of Michelle Williams, who only appears in the first few minutes of the film, Haynes says. "It was something that the deaf community would've loved for us to do, but it has some considerations that were just about getting the studio behind it."
April Webster, a casting director of 30 years whose credits include Star Wars: The Force Awakens and CBS' Criminal Minds, says she understands why directors and studios hire A-listers, "but the more these (disabled) actors get access, the more there's a possibility of someone becoming more of a star."
Webster is a member of the Casting Society of America's Inclusion and Diversity Committee, which organizes workshops and town halls to teach industry professionals about working with people with disabilities, whether that's ensuring wheelchair access on sets or having interpreters available in audition rooms.
"It's a whole process of education on both sides," Webster says. "It's not just a matter of being politically correct, it's also about knowing that when you have people on screen that people can relate to, they'll watch your show. It's just smart business to do that, but that means people having the opportunity. It just becomes a matter of raising the consciousness."
So what can Hollywood do to give more visibility? Lauren Appelbaum, communications director for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to fight stigmas and create opportunities for people with disabilities, urges studios to look to TV, where actors such as Stranger Things' Gaten Matarazzo (who has cleidocranial dysplasia, a rare growth disorder) and NCIS: New Orleans' Daryl Mitchell (who is paralyzed from the chest down) play roles that don't hinge on them being disabled.
"Actors with disabilities could easily play roles that neither hide nor emphasize their disability," Appelbaum says. "For example: a doctor who uses a wheelchair or a scientist with cerebral palsy. By including characters with obvious and hidden disabilities in scripts and story lines, films can create more authenticity within entertainment."
When audiences don't see disabilities on the big or small screen, "you're perpetuating a segregation of a complete class of people," Ruderman says. But he's hopeful about progress: "It takes a while to change attitudes. ... In 10 years, you're going to see an able-bodied actor or actress playing a disability, and think, 'That doesn't seem right.' But we're not there yet as a society."