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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Disabled people kept out of the picture
By Stephen Robb
BBC News Online

New British film Inside I'm Dancing opened on Friday in the wake of objections to its use of able-bodied actors to play disabled characters. But why are campaigners so angry, and should there be more disabled people on cinema and TV screens?

Steven Robertson, Romola Garai and James McAvoy in Inside I'm Dancing (courtesy Momentum Pictures)
There has been controversy over the casting of Inside I'm Dancing
The casting of able-bodied actors in disabled roles is far from rare, and in the film industry has sometimes been regarded as an almost sure-fire route to awards glory.

Think Daniel Day-Lewis as an artist with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot or Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of autism in Rain Main - both performances won Best Actor Oscars in the Eighties.

But there have been significant advances in disability rights in Britain since then, which may explain some of the current anger over Inside I'm Dancing.

The film, released in the same month as the final stages of the Disability Discrimination Act come into force, sees able-bodied actors James McAvoy and Steven Robertson portraying men with muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy.

The message is really undermined by the use of non-disabled actors
Nuala Calvi
Reporter, Disability Now

Director Damien O'Donnell's claim that he could not find any disabled actors right for the roles has been dismissed by some people within the industry.

"It's just inexcusable," said Julie Fernandez, who has brittle bone disease and appeared in The Office.

"We wouldn't find it acceptable in this day and age to get a white actor and paint him black. There would be an outcry. Yet there is never an outcry when this happens."

Nuala Calvi, a reporter for Disability Now magazine, praised the film for bringing an unlikely issue - disabled people's employment of personal assistants - to the screen.

Julie Fernandez in The Office
The Office star Julie Fernandez campaigns for disability rights
"Unfortunately the message is really undermined by the use of non-disabled actors in these roles," she said.

"It's difficult enough to get into the mainstream media if you are disabled, but especially for disabled actors. When non-disabled actors steal their parts, what's left for them?"

But she admitted it can be "that bit harder" to find disabled actors.

"There might be a lot of talent out there, but it's not always easy for producers to find. There aren't that many disabled actors who actually have agents."

Ewan Marshall produced this year's BBC2 romantic drama Every Time You Look At Me, possibly the first mainstream programme to feature two disabled actors in the lead roles.

He said there is a vicious circle that sees few disabled people becoming actors due to the lack of opportunities, meaning productions that do try to cast disabled actors only have a "tiny pool of people" to choose from.

You have to be quite determined to find [disabled actors]. It is harder but it can be done
Ewan Marshall
Television producer
And drama schools have been largely inaccessible, "buildings-wise as well as curriculum-wise", to disabled people, Miss Fernandez said.

"If we cannot get the same training as able-bodied people, that obviously doesn't help," she said.

"Nevertheless, there are still a lot of talented disabled actors out there who have got their training in other ways who need to be sourced."

Many of those have come through north London's Graeae Theatre Company for people with disabilities, which runs training courses in conjunction with London Metropolitan University.

Mr Marshall is currently developing a series for CBBC about a junior wheelchair basketball team and said it is possible to find disabled acting talent "if you are committed to it".

We encountered rather disturbing resistance to the idea that we would cast a disabled actor
Matt Dickinson
Director, Cloud Cuckoo Land
"You have got to be proactive. We went to the basketball leagues - we were checking if any of those people could act and many of them could.

"You have to be quite determined to find who is out there. It is harder but it can be done."

But the experiences of filmmaker Matt Dickinson over a seven-year period suggest there are more troubling obstacles than just finding disabled actors who are suitable.

In 1997 he co-wrote the screenplay for Cloud Cuckoo Land with Steve Varden, who has cerebral palsy and was to take the starring role.

"We encountered a continual and rather disturbing level of resistance in the movie world to the idea that we would cast a disabled actor," Mr Dickinson said.

Steve Varden in Cloud Cuckoo Land (courtesy Airborne Productions)
Steve Varden co-wrote and stars in Cloud Cuckoo Land
"Two senior executives from a global studio said we had a very commercial screenplay and that they wanted to get it made, but on the express condition they could cast a person who is not disabled.

"At the decision making level in the world of feature films, they are lagging 10 or 15 years behind the rest of the world in their attitude towards having disabled people on the big screen."

The filmmakers refused to abandon their original plan, though, and Cloud Cuckoo Land is released next month with Steve Varden in the leading role.

There are general signs of progress, with disability currently a "sexy issue" for film and television, according to Miss Calvi.

She pointed to the 2003 film Afterlife, starring Paula Sage who has Down's syndrome, Every Time You Look At Me, and the prominent character with cerebral palsy in BBC1 drama A Thing Called Love.

You are always making a specific reference to the fact that we are disabled, rather than just human beings
Julie Fernandez
And Miss Fernandez believes the Disability Discrimination Act will make drama schools more accessible.

She longs for a time when disabled people might feature in films and television programmes which treat their disabilities as incidental.

"Otherwise you are always making a specific reference to the fact that we are disabled, rather than just human beings like everybody else."

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