Over the past year, there has been a lot of public debate on able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities. From Dwayne Johnson playing a below-the-knee leg amputee in “Skyscraper” (2018) and Joaquin Phoenix playing a quadriplegic in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (2018), to, more recently, Bryan Cranston being cast as a quadriplegic in “The Upside” (2019).
Some claim it’s an actor’s job to play roles outside their own experience, while many people with disabilities and their allies argue able-bodied actors are taking jobs away from actors with disabilities — a group that is already underrepresented in the workforce across several industries.
As an accessibility consultant and a blind consumer of entertainment, I can say a lot of films and TV shows not only lack disability representation, but also accessibility features.
A few weeks ago, the Internet erupted with outcries over the casting of Perry Mattfeld as the leading role of Murphy, a blind woman in The CW’s new series “In the Dark.” The National Federation of the Blind protested outside CBS studios, which owns The CW, in New York City and launched the hashtag #letusplayus.
While I was disappointed that, yet again, my community would be represented by an outsider, I was happy to hear the show did have one blind supporting character and a blindness consultant on staff. Thus, I decided to give the show a chance. Using Comcast’s audio description feature, which automatically plays the narration for the blind for shows and commercials that offer it, I sat on my couch to listen to the first episode during its Thursday night airing.
None of The CW’s shows offer descriptive audio for the blind, and “In the Dark” was sadly not an exception. Still, I was surprised because Calle Watson, the visually impaired actor who plays Chloe, a blind teen, and Lori Bernson, the show’s blindness consultant, who is also legally blind, did an interview where they emphasized the importance of descriptive audio.
Some networks, such as Fox, TNT, and TBS, are wonderful about descriptive audio for the blind, while ABC and NBC are hit or miss. I reached out to gay and blind writer Robert Kingett, who singlehandedly got Netflix to add descriptive audio to the streaming service, to weigh in on film and TV access. He said, “Most of the time, people see audio description, especially on federally mandated TV, for example, as a chore they have to do or else — whoops! — don’t want to get a fine from the FCC!”
Kingett says financing plays a major role when it comes to accessibility features for film and TV. Also, the studio must have the desire to not do a sloppy job when it comes to access. It took Kingett five years of calling, emailing, and blogging to get Netflix to add descriptive audio, and now they are the leader in providing access to films and shows to the blind.
With the second episode of “In the Dark,” I took a different approach. I recorded it with my Comcast DVR, which also would have recorded the descriptive audio feature had it been available, to help me understand the events in the scenes. A 42-minute show turned into an hour and a half of constantly hitting the rewind button. Ultimately, I got frustrated with the show and stopped listening to it.
Up to this point, I had enjoyed the acting of Calle Watson who plays Chloe. The banter between she and her father is heartwarming and fun, while Murphy, played by Perry Matfeld, came across as forced and stiff. I was also horrified by how Murphy treated her guide dog, and was unclear why her mother did not know how to interact with her blind daughter.
I could not help but wonder: how can a show with a blindness consultant get the blind experience so wrong? Greg Shane, artistic director at CRE Outreach, told me, “I would recommend for studios wanting to do disability-themed productions, to hire at least two or three consultants. It is limiting to think that one person alone can hold the experiences of an entire community.”
I reached out to “In the Dark’s” publicist, Cyndee Ellefson, but did not get a reply.
Matffeld was described to me as tall, thin, and pretty, and if the show gets cancelled, she will have the ability to go on and get roles playing all types of characters. However, Watson, the stronger actor, will have limited roles to audition for over the next few years. Studios may see her talent, but ultimately pass on her because she would have limited credits to her name as a result of losing parts to sighted actors.
Belo Cipriani is an award-winning author and prize-winning journalist. His new book, ‘Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities,’ is now available. Learn more at olebbooks.com.