I was kvetching in November 2009, on the NZ Disability Media Collective website, of which I am a member and commentator about the casting of a non-disabled actor to play the character of wheelchair using highschool student Artie Abrams, in the popular TV series Glee.
Let me be clear I mean no disrespect to the actor Kevin McHale, who is 22, this is a casting decision, made by the shows Directors and Producers. The whole inclusion of a character with a disability is a bit sad anyway, as Artie seldom stars in solo songs or dances and is rarely integrated in to the high school glee club's group song and dance routines story lines. Which is to say Artie is pretty much sidelined. This is perhaps to be expected in a program, like so much TV with one dimensional characters. There's Kurt who is Caucasian-American and gay, Tina who is Asian-American, Mercedes who is African-American, Sue who is the mean Caucasian-American lesbian sports coach, Artie who is disabled. Season 2 has returned with the same line-up of characters and actors.
No one is allowed to be oh I don't know even 2 dimensional, say disabled and gay, African-American and disabled, Asian-American and lesbian, Latin-American and have Downs Syndrome, Native-American and the smartest kid in school. Where so much is one times removed, you can be a gay couple, (Rachel's parents) or a sister with Downs Syndrome (cheerleading coach Sue's sister), if you are a relative of a main character. You can't be the main character.
What got us talking was this well researched article considering why actors with disabilities do not get roles in TV and film even for characters with disabilities. 'Glee' wheelchair episode hits bump with disabled by Lynn Elber.
Upon viewing the episode 'Wheels' where the whole glee club make a bad attempt at all performing a dance in wheelchairs I wrote on NZDMC:
'...But I wondered whimsically if like synchronized swimming, somewhere in the world there wasn't a paralympic synchronized dancing team that would do a much better job!? It is kind of an anomaly in 2009, that Asian, African-American, and possibly gay (?) actors get to play characters relevant to their identities, but characters with disabilities are still played by non-disabled actors. Apart from a few wonderful exceptions - Marlee Matlin, (who happens to be Deaf) Hollywood rarely allows disabled actors to portray characters with disabilities, or characters for whom disability is incidental to their character...'
Well search no further, here right in my own back yard as it were are the CanDance Team. I stumbled upon crowd favorites Jamie DeChamplain (in purple), and partners Sarah Lapp (in pink) and Matt Pregent (in blue) performing at an event this week. Sarah using an electric wheelchair, damn she has good control in the turn on a dime 360 spin! Jamie and Matt in manual wheelchairs, are hip-hop on wheels. The trio's synchronization, innovation, and sense of fun is awesome. My personal favorite move, when all three linked in a row do the 360 spin. Copyright the name of that move right now people! What I really like about this troupe, is all the dancers being wheelchair users. Sometimes with mixed ability groups there is a sense of inequality in the movements somehow, with an able-bodied dancer, dancing 'around' a dancer in a wheelchair, or 'guiding' them to make traditional ballet moves. The all wheelchair troupe make up their own moves so it is much more natural.
They are young, hip, and going places! Can they act and sing? Yep I expect some of them will. Below a clip of Sarah, Jamie and others of the CanDance Team performing that signature move in Robson Square, and ASL Singing along with the song lyrics. They told me during the performances for the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games 2010 there was only 1 wheelchair dancer, which they thought was kind of tokenistic and pathetic, on behalf of the organizers, directors and choreographers. You can contact CanDance through Wheeldance.ca/programs. Photos by Matthew Wild.