Everyone is happy (or says they are) about seeing more diverse characters on TV these days. But one “diverse” group of actors we aren’t seeing is those we could characterize as “disabled.” For those who wonder what’s up, we bring you this report:
by Dawn Foster
“What is normal?” playwright Kaite O’Reilly asks during a break in rehearsals for her new play, And Suddenly I Disappear. “What is normal for you, isn’t normal for me. We’re so limited by these ideas of normalcy, what it is to be human.”
O’Reilly’s play, debuting at the Southbank Centre in London , on Wednesday, then touring around the country, comprises what O’Reilly calls her “D-monologues”: fictional soliloquies discussing aspects of disability, difference and diversity. Two of the actors, Ramesh Meyyappan and Sophie Stone, are deaf. “There are so few good parts for people who are different, whose bodies don’t conform,” O’Reilly says. “And, invariably, they’re not performed by disabled or deaf people” – a fact highlighted by the row over the casting of a non-disabled actor in the remake of The Elephant Man.
“I decided I wanted to write work that challenges the normal perception of what it is to be disabled,” says O’Reilly. “I’m perceiving the world differently because of the particular body and senses I have. I’m grateful that I can really explore disability, and the political and cultural perspective that brings.”
O’Reilly describes herself as a person with a visual and physical disability, writing for disabled actors. It means she has avoided the tendency to use characters’ disabilities exclusively as plot devices, or disability being a metaphor for moral bankruptcy. “Disabled characters are often metaphors or tropes, representing very negative aspects of what it is to be human. So you’re evil personified, or you’re piteous or you’re helpless, or, since the 2012 Olympics, it’s gone the other way, we’re inspirational – ‘The extraordinary bodies, look what they can overcome…!’”