"Acting disabled" or acting with a disability?

Whether they are on the big stage, on TV or the big screen – characters with various disabilities keep turning up. But how are the characters being portrayed? What impression do they leave with viewers? And are they actually played by actors with disabilities? REHACARE.com got a small overview over the industry.


Photo: Lead cast of "Dr. Klein"; Copyright: ZDF/Mathias Bothor

The ZDF afternoon TV series "Dr. Klein" has a fresh view on the impairment of the lead role Dr. Valerie Klein; © ZDF/Mathias Bothor

They can usually be seen in a supporting role or they are the direct anchor of the overall movie: persons with disabilities. They keep appearing in film and TV but also in theater plays – as the daughter with Trisomy 21 or the best buddy in a wheelchair.

The always supportive friend of everyone; that describes the character of Frederik Neuhaus in the long-running German afternoon TV show "Marienhof" for instance. The role was played by Erwin Aljukic who lives with Osteogenesis Imperfecta.

A fresh take on German TV shows

When characters with a disability appear in German TV series, the physical impairment – typically caused by an accident – is usually just temporary. The healing and recovery aspect seems to be the professed goal of most screenplays. This is generally not particularly well received by persons with various disabilities.

That’s why many television viewers were delighted about the start of the ZDF afternoon TV series "Dr. Klein" that is already celebrating its second season. The show’s title character is Dr. Valerie Klein. She is not only a physician at a children’s hospital but also the mother of two children, the daughter of a father with dementia, a wife and a woman with very quick witted comebacks for her adversary, Dr. Lang.

The lead role stars ChrisTine Urspruch who murder mystery aficionados know primarily from the popular "Tatort Münster" TV series where she plays coroner Silke Haller, also called Alberich. Her body height of 1.32 m (4 ft. 4 in) keeps offering the show opportunities for wordplays without hitting below the belt.
Photo: Carina Kühne; Copyright: Peter Schäfer

In "Be my baby" Carina Kühne plays a young woman with trisomy 21 who wants to live a self-determined life; © Peter Schäfer

This fairly relaxed handling of dwarfism of the main character is currently still the exception in Germany’s TV landscape. But the viewers give positive feedback.

"I always look forward to the 'Dr. Klein' TV series," says actor Carina Kühne. "I think it’s simply important to see persons with disabilities on TV – just like in real life." Kühne herself also contributes her share in this regard: she played the lead role in the television production "Be my baby". It features a young woman with Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) who would like to become a mother and live a self-determined life.

US TV series: disabilities take a backseat

Does the respective disability of a character actually always need to be an issue and focus? US television shows in many areas that this is not necessary. By now, Peter Dinklage is one of the main characters in "Game of Thrones". His dwarfism is not a primary focus. It is one of many characteristics that make up his role as Tyrion Lannister. He already won an Emmy twice and once a Golden Globe Award for this role.

Other TV series in the U.S. – and by now all over the world – also demonstrate how diversity can work in casting: Jamie Brewer has become internationally known for her turn in three seasons of "American Horror Story". Lauren Potter embodied the role of Becky Jackson in the popular show "Glee". Both women have Trisomy 21. RJ Mitte has also won accolades for his role as Walter White Jr. in "Breaking Bad". By now, the actor with cerebral palsy has become a young sought-after actor.

Controversy: just acting a disability?

Yet not every character that has a disability in film and TV is automatically being cast with a disabled actor. Quite the contrary: it is still the exception. Incidentally, this fact is hotly debated amongst persons with disabilities. Some demand that disabled characters must also exclusively be played by actors with the same or at least a similar disability. Otherwise, authenticity is not possible. Others concede the job of an actor also includes getting into other roles and acting as convincingly as possible.

Although Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything" received an Academy Award for his role, persons with disabilities gave both praise as well as criticism for his acting performance. Among others, he received positive feedback for extensively learning about Hawking’s neurodegenerative disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and his life prior to filming the movie.
Photo: Deaf actress during shooting of the new "Tatort"; Copyright: SR/Manuela Meyer

Kassandra Wedel is deaf and also plays a deaf character in the new "Tatort: Totenstille"; © SR/Manuela Meyer

Incidentally, it is also helpful and sensible for a great film or TV production if persons with disabilities also assume a consulting function from the start. As was the case in the upcoming "Tatort: Totenstille" for example. The new Tatort from Saarbrücken will include many deaf characters. As an expert on the subject, the deaf blogger Julia Probst participated in writing the screenplay and was able to incorporate her respective knowledge. All deaf characters were also played by deaf actors. The broadcast is scheduled for the end of January 2016.

Europe: diversity in the theater

Acting doesn’t just take place in the movies or on the television screen. Creative heads with and without disabilities also step onto the stages that mean the world to them. Compared to film and television, there are significantly more active actors with disabilities in theaters, especially in Germany – admittedly usually in explicit theater groups such as the Theater Ramba Zamba or Theater Thikwa in Berlin for example. Recently, they showed their skills at the theater festivals "Grenzenlos Kultur" <i>(English: Unlimited Culture)</i> in Mainz or at NO LIMITS in Berlin. Samuel Koch and Jana Zöll are two actors with disabilities who are part of the ensemble cast at the State Theater Darmstadt.

The rest of Europe also has smaller and larger theaters that work with actors with disabilities: for instance, the HORA Theater Zurich (Switzerland), the Dutch Theater Maatwerk or the Belgian theater group Stap. Just recently, the DuvTeatern in Helsinki (Finland) received the State Award for its long-standing and exemplary inclusion work in the Finnish theater scene.

When film and television now take a page from the European theater scape and the industry, on the whole, and become more open to the existing diversity in our society, we might only need to discuss whether productions are good or bad – regardless of the disability aspect.
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)

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