Today in Painfully Ironic Disablism

Yesterday morning, there was an item in the NYT Arts section about the controversy surrounding the casting of 13-year-old sighted and hearing actress Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) in a Broadway revival of "The Miracle Worker," the play dramatizing the life of activist, advocate, and Suffragette Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf. Disability activists have protested the casting of an able-bodied actor in the role, and the way the casting was done—no deaf, blind, or deafblind actors were considered for the role.

Later in the day, some reader responses were posted, and despite this being a perfect example of what I expected, I still had to lolsob:
Post #2, by a commenter named Me, echoes a concern of the "Miracle Worker" producers: How technically proficient would a blind actor be working in the round — i.e., the small, circular stage of the production's theater, Circle in the Square?

"This is hard to say without sounding terrible, but: isn’t there a basic concern with blocking a blind character when the person playing the part is blind?" writes Me.
See, here's the thing: "The Miracle Worker" is based on the true story of a woman who was left deaf and blind by an early childhood illness, and the woman who became her instructor, herself visually impaired, who gave her student a vast vocabulary to communicate, allowing her to become a world-renowned speaker and author.

It's a play about a woman whose disabilities didn't limit her, about how, given the right tools, she was able to accomplish anything to which she set her formidable mind.

If you know this basic information about "The Miracle Worker," how are you going to question the ability of a deaf/blind professional stage actor to accomplish the basics of their job?! The irony, it burns.

It's especially searing coming from the producers of the play, who apparently think they're telling a story of exceptionalism. Or, perhaps, would have treated Keller herself with the same contempt for her ability, if actually faced with the prospect of working with her. It's enough to make one wonder why they would seek to tell her story in the first place.

The answer is likely money: "The Miracle Worker" has been wildly successful since it was first written, with countless productions and several film versions, so a revival was probably considered a low-risk, big-potential endeavor. As long as there was a star, of course:
The lead producer of the revival, David Richenthal, said in an interview that he had already made up his mind about his casting criteria for Helen when he chose to revive the William Gibson play -– he wanted a star. The only way to make money for his investors in a commercial Broadway revival of a play these days, Mr. Richenthal believes, is to cast stars, and his research did not turn up any young well known actresses who were deaf or blind.

"It's simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you'll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance," Mr. Richenthal said. "I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star."
Provided that's true (and I'm not remotely certain it is; the progressive casting of a deaf/blind actor in a prominent revivial would have been its own draw), perhaps Richenthal's "research" should have suggested he choose another play. Instead, he wants to argue that he ought not be criticized for mounting "The Miracle Worker" with a sighted and hearing actor, because there aren't any famous young deaf/blind stars who could play the role. (And it is other producers' responsibility to create those deaf/blind stars, not his!) Plus, it might be hard to work with a deaf/blind actor. (And that's obviously because of the deafness/blindness, not because of the disablism that has rendered his production clueless how to block a character for a deaf/blind actor!)

The fail just keeps coming.

Again from the post sharing reader comments comes this bit of much-needed sense and perspective care of playwright Christopher Shinn:
In his post No. 18, the playwright Christopher Shinn ("Dying City," "On the Mountain") reacted to earlier comments by writing that "there seems to be a hostility towards the idea that the best person to represent disability would be someone who had experienced disability directly."

"I think the possibility must be examined that part of the appeal of many successful disability narratives (especially in film) is that we are constantly reassured that the actor portraying the disability in no way suffers from it," he goes on to say. "If this is true, it doesn't just weaken the purpose of producing the work in the first place — it actually propagates an ideology completely at odds with the work."

And I struggle to see how it is that relying on the invisibility of deaf/blind actors created by bigotry, and espousing prejudices about their abilities, is not completely at odds with everything that Helen Keller's life and accomplishments convey.

I would recommend that Mr. Richenthal see a production of "The Miracle Worker," but he's obviously familiar with the material. He's just resistant to internalizing it.

Perhaps he could go see one of the many productions that have been staged by sight- and/or hearing-impaired companies.

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