Image shows various 'accessibility' logos, including symbol for wheelchair user and deafness
Image shows various 'accessibility' logos, including symbol for wheelchair user and deafness

“Cripping up” is a term coined by members of the disabled community to describe a phenomenon in Hollywood wherein able-bodied (physically well/healthy) actors apply prosthetics or makeup, use fake mobility aids, and employ any other combination of film tricks in order to portray a disabled character. For example: the movie Wonder. Think Jacob Tremblay, a face of prosthetic makeup, and hundreds of children with craniofacial differences who will grow up to be told that there aren’t any roles for them. Recently, I have spent a lot of time researching this phenomenon and I have come across some shocking statistics. For one, 14 out of the last 27 winners of the Best Actor Oscar have portrayed a mentally ill or disabled character. However, the Oscars have only ever recognized two disabled actors.

Think about it. How many movies or television shows can you name that feature a disabled character played by a disabled person? One? Maybe two, total? But if 1/5 of the population are disabled, then where are all of those actors?

I realized when the whole thing with the movie Wonder went down and I started talking about it that none of the people I knew were upset. They kept arguing with me, telling me that “it’s just acting” and “it’s always been that way!” But it isn’t just about acting. It is about representation. All that movie represented is able-bodied white boys who can put on makeup and fake cry.
And for another thing, don’t ever tell me not to challenge something just because it is a precedent.

It’s like this: if there were roles for disabled actors in other movies, television shows, etc. then I would not have a problem with the occasional able-bodied actor playing a disabled role. But the fact that there aren’t any is what makes it so damaging, so hurtful.

Recently the movie The Shape of Water received backlash for their use of actress Sally Hawkins, who is not deaf or mute, to play a mute character. The crew of the movie spent a few weeks attempting to teach her to use a form of sign language, which was not ASL or any other known form of sign. This is likely because if she had used ASL, it would have been abundantly clear to fluent ASL users that she was far from proficient. Unfortunately, it was still quite obvious. Her signs were jerky and lacking expression — not characteristic of someone who had been signing for years. Instead of taking an important opportunity to provide representation for sign users, they chose to take the time to teach Hawkins a synthesized form of the language. Interesting, when the main argument against hiring disabled actors is that working with them costs too much time and money. (They also included a nice little ableist narrative wherein the disabled woman fell in love with a fish man because he saw through her disability and treated her as whole, because disabled people are obviously broken and lacking otherwise, but that’s an argument for another time.) Despite all of that, The Shape of Water recently won an Oscar for the best film of the year. Clearly, we still reward this type of behavior.

So why is it that disabled actors aren’t hired? Well, quite simply, ableism. What it comes down to, really, is that nobody believes that disabled people are capable of telling their own story. Among cited reasons are that they are “too expensive,” “difficult to work with,” or even just not there. Hello, empty void, do you hear my screams?? I hope I don’t have to explain why it isn’t ever ok to tell someone that they are too expensive and not worth the effort to exist, so it should shock you that those narratives are shoved upon disabled people daily. (I really, really hope it does.) Because of this, when disabled actors are told these things, it’s just a reinforcement of all the ableist bullshit they have heard their entire lives, of all the walls put up by society that already keep them out of so many other things.

If you don’t believe in ableism, ask yourselves why people applying for an office job are expected to be able to pick up 50 pounds of materials. Google “wheelchair ramp shoveled snow” or “accessible bathroom used as storage” or just ableism, at all. It’s all right there.

As Maysoon Zayid explains in her Ted Talk, “Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can't play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can't play a wheelchair user... People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.” I never intend to equate disability with race, understanding that the issues and the history of these minority groups are certainly different, but the fact remains: “cripping up” is just as bad as “blackface” or “yellowface.” It simply isn’t often recognized as a problem because people don’t see disabled people as a group that deserves a platform with which to represent themselves and the wide variety of stories we have to tell.

People are, of course, more than their disability. But when actors think that a wheelchair, a fake tic, some prosthetic makeup or hastily-learned sign can accurately represent a disabled person, it reduces those characters and their complex experiences to just that. By refusing to allow disabled actors to play roles of disabled characters OR able-bodied characters, they are completely erased from the narrative. That leaves us in the void of disabled twitter and articles that a couple thousand people read and retweet, while ADAPT is currently at the white house begging for the illegalization of electro shock therapy on disabled people (yep, you read that right); while the ADA is currently under attack.

I hope this makes you uncomfortable. I hope next time you decide not to fund these movies. I hope I have encouraged you to start listening to your local disabled friends and just. STOP. the casual ableism please!! Thanks.

(I choose to use identity-first language for this article. It is a conscious choice. For more on this decision, check out this neat link: