Guest Blog: “Cripping Up” Robs Opportunities From Actors Who Need Them

Ben Caro
Filmmaker

August 24, 2016

Cathedrals poster. A man with eyes closed appears in profile at the right of the image. Superimposed, in gothic lettering, is the word Cathedrals, followed in plainer text by the words A Short Film to Benefit the Blind. Film credits appear at the bottom of the poster.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 (right). Usually, hundreds of eligible actors vie for a part. However, this part was different: I was looking for a blind actor.

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, a scrappy theater company whose troupe is fully comprised of blind actors. 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.

“Oh, okay!” This seemed to surprise him. “I'll run it by them, then.” 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 to a company. 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.”

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.”

With a front door behind them, an older and a younger man face each other to shake hands.Instead of complaining, I'm doing something to change that. We've cast Rick Boggs (right, with Ben Caro), 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 invogorated to do something more. I am no longer interested in just making a good film. I want to do make some good, too.

About Ben

A man sits in an outdoor, wooded area, elbows on knees, grinning at something over his shoulder.Ben is a film and TV editor who also writes and directs. He's edited shows for YouTube Red and ABC Studios, and directed Sophie Turner and Matt Damon for GQ. Though he's been editing for 8 years, Ben's passion lies in writing and directing, and after honing the "Cathedrals" script for 2 years, he's excited to knock it out of the park and make a film that matters to the blind community and Carver fans alike.

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