Diversity without disability is not diversity.
When it comes to debates surrounding representation onscreen, one of the more under-discussed areas is that of disability. There’s a few reasons why that might be—questionable definitions of what constitutes disability, a proportionate lack of community to exert pressure, a general societal discomfort with discussing disability openly, a perceived lack of glamour in the subject compared to hotter topics like race or sexuality—but one of the main ones may be a perception that there is a genuine difference in ability between able-bodied people and the disabled, it’s right there in the name after all, and therefore a degree of inequality is taken for granted. It’s true that accessibility is a legitimate obstacle, there are more actual, material barriers to be taken into account, alongside the more abstract economic and social ones.
However, those obstacles need solving, not shrugging off. In our popular culture, we’re learning not to tolerate expressions of discrimination, but the manifestations of discrimination run deeper than people’s acknowledged attitudes and systemic and economic barriers between us must be overcome for meaningful change to occur. So what we need is a circular system by which those societal flaws are addressed, while cultural attitudes are ministered to, explaining the need for such change. The system and the perception need to be worked on in parallel to ensure progress takes hold.
Nothing about us, without us.
There is a storied history in media, particularly film, of actors playing against race and against sexuality, but both these presumptive forms of cultural theft are dwarfed by the vast catalogs of able bodied actors interpreting the experiences of disabled subjects. Be it mental or physical, there is a vast and ongoing tradition of A-list stars building their reputations off the back of depicting a disabled person. Some of these performances and indeed films may be very good, from Jon Voight in Coming Home to Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, some genuinely moving works of great art have existed in this lane, but they should still be interrogated as examples of able bodied stars whose interpretations stood in for the experiences of disabled people. Disabled people looking for work as actors.
One of the projects looking to redress the discrimination against disabled actors is the new short film from director Missy Malak: We’re Too Good For This. The film stars deaf actors Jayden Reid and Asnath Iosala as well as wheelchair users Keron Day and Asa Hems, these latter with whom I had the opportunity to speak about the film and their own perceptions on the state of the film industry. Hems, Day, Iosala and Reid play four inner city youths–two deaf and two in wheelchairs—who overhear the location of a drugs stash from a bullying family member and decide to steal the drugs themselves, not only putting one over on the older brother who ridiculed their disabilities, but demonstrating that they’re not to be underestimated.
The central theme of We’re Too Good For This is challenging that attitude of underestimation, addressing the belief that just because society has failed to meet the specific needs of disabled people, they’re not incapable. Many times throughout the film, the characters encounter someone and get the better of them by playing on their assumptions about disabled people: the assumption that they couldn’t be up to no good because they just wouldn’t have it in them like other teens do. Malak’s story argues that these characters have all the wit and nerve necessary to get up to no good, and moreover, have something to prove be so doing.
This underestimation is integral to the experience of being disabled, and though seemingly benign, contributes to the same attitude that results in industry erasure. As Keron Day put it: “When someone’s being horrible you can dismiss that, but when someone’s patronising you that’s almost worse”, good intentions don’t erase the fact it stems in a lack of respect for disabled people’s competence.
Though their principal tone is that of entertainment, films like We’re Too Good For This offer opportunities to speak to audiences on an emotional level that can utilise the tools of mainstream culture to manipulate audiences into sympathy with disabled characters the same way they’ve always been used. Something Keron and Asa specifically expressed a desire to see onscreen is for audiences to be awoken to the need for wheelchair accessibility, by showing them “some plot point where the audience want to see something but it doesn’t happen because of inaccessibility”.
Lead actor Keron also spoke of the rare opportunity the film gave him as a disabled actor to participate in a fight scene, a sequence during filming of which the necessity of consulting with your actors and of incorporating disabled creatives and not just performers was made manifest: “the original script included something like ‘he pushes the wheelchair back’ and I was like, ‘you can’t push a 100kg electric wheelchair, especially not with someone in it!’ Anyone with actual experience of using an electric wheelchair is going to look that that and immediately know it’s fake, so we changed it.” The stunt director had never worked with actors in wheelchairs and so had to learn to accommodate them, which they achieved and proved to be possible.
The film utilizes a freewheeling and frenetic style familiar to BBC young adult dramas and the like that deal with the chaotic lives of inner city youths, though here it’s often heightened to a degree of intensity that would be utterly wearying in a feature length film but which in a short, gives the piece an anarchic and eclectic kineticism.
Creating room for disabled artists and creatives to do their thing and have a voice doesn’t occur organically within the present system, because our current normal is erasure. Some might argue that going out of our way to create vehicles for disabled stars ghettoises disabled actors, while a slow incorporation into the mainstream feels tokenistic. But as Keron stated: “why can’t we have both?” It’ll take both tactics in tandem to incubate real change in the visibility and stake of disabled people within our culture and the industries that have the power to shape that culture.
When asked about the possibility of continuing the story of these characters, Asa replied: “they know where to find me”, and that applies not only to his established collaborators with this project, but the industry as a whole. They know where to find talented disabled people, all it will take is for them to start looking.
We’re Too Good For This will show at the London Short Film Festival as part of the LSFF: My Eye Is My Ear programme.