Braille Monitor                          June 2019

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Let Us Play Us: Starting Down the Road to Equality on Stage and Screen

by Julie McGinnity

Julie McGinnityFrom the Editor: Julie McGinnity is a program specialist who works at the Jernigan Institute. But as many of us do, she holds different jobs in the organization, and in this article she speaks primarily in her role as the president of the Performing Arts Division.

I remember the first time I was denied a role in a production because of my blindness. In fifth grade we performed a children's version of A Christmas Carol, and I longed for one of the leading roles. Now, elementary school isn't Broadway. In order to earn a leading role, a student had to read, speak, learn, and communicate well. He or she also had to be comfortable performing in front of an audience. Since some of the roles were divided among the students, there was plenty of stardom to go around. And yet, I did not receive one, despite being at the top of my class academically, being clear and perhaps even loud with my verbal communication and having been in voice lessons for the last year. I knew I could sing as well as act up to their standards, and looking back, I know my confidence at the time was not misplaced. However, the music teacher didn't give me a chance because he would not produce the script in Braille, and he believed that I could not navigate the stage independently. I remember parroting lines that were read to me, one line at a time, rather than reading lines and engaging in the dialogue on the script like my peers. One stand-alone line was given to me that I could deliver standing in a group of other students so that I wouldn't be walking by myself on the stage. I was hurt that no one would let me audition for a role I really wanted. The opportunity was denied me, and even worse, I didn't have the language to fight it and advocate for myself.

When I began thinking about the roots of the Let Us Play Us campaign, that recollection came to mind. So many of you can probably relate to my story because it is not unique. It speaks to a pattern that continues to occur in the world of the performing arts. That pattern rests on the low expectations of blind performers and is perpetuated by a lack of opportunity that persists on stage and in the film industry. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Let Us Play Us campaign and what we can do about this problem. Then I hope you will join me in working hard together to break this pattern and open up opportunities for blind performers.

We protested on April 4 in New York City outside CBS headquarters with two immediate goals in mind: We wanted the show In the Dark to be canceled until a blind actress could replace the current choice, who is not blind. We also wanted CBS to consult with us about the show and any future decisions it makes regarding its portrayal of blindness.

But that’s not why I protested. I protested because I, like many Federationists, have had enough.
My voice deserves to be heard, and my experience as a performer should grant me a spot at the table. I am tired of the current narrative surrounding blind performers, and I would like to lead the charge as we speak out. It’s time to turn performers’ dreams into reality and work together as a federation to be heard by the entertainment industry. We would like to develop relationships with those in the industry so that we can work together to create a landscape of equality for blind performers at all skill levels.

Allow me to point out one important fact: Blind people are and can be successful in the performing arts. There are accomplished, professional blind musicians, opera singers, actors, dancers, and more. Although the successful blind performers I’ve met have faced discrimination, they have also been given chances to learn and prove themselves. So, before I begin writing about what we should work to accomplish in this industry, I want you to know that it can be done. My story above was not my end as a performer. The actress, Marilee Talkington, who spoke at our 2018 national convention, did not meet the end of her career when she was discouraged either. But so many blind performers are kept off the stage and away from the film sets. We are questioned, challenged, swept aside, and denied access to learning more on a regular basis. We have received stories from a range of blind performers, from those who could never gain experience on the stage as a child, to those who perform professionally as a career. All of them have one thing in common. They experienced unequal treatment in their performing endeavors.

Blind performers seek equality, opportunity, and full integration in the entertainment industry—lofty goals, I’ve been told. The Let Us Play Us campaign, after all, is a first step. How can we expect full integration when we can’t even play blind characters on TV?
This is nonsense and does not represent the goals and aspirations of the Federation I know and love. The National Federation of the Blind believes in the capabilities of blind people. We believe in each other and live out that belief through our high expectations. We won’t accomplish everything right away. But if we only look at this as one protest, one opportunity for a blind actor to play a blind character, we are doing our blind performers a disservice.

We must consider first how we plan to change attitudes. What attitudes need correcting as we continue this process after Let Us Play Us? After all, nearly all unequal treatment stems from negative attitudes about blindness.  

We must begin by rejecting the inspirational model. You’ve all seen them, those inspirational stories written about blind performers who have overcome their blindness. Inspiration may seem uplifting and harmless, but it does not promote an atmosphere of respect for the performer’s talent, education, and skill. The inspirational model defines blind performers by their blindness and does not give them credit for actual accomplishments.

In grad school, after a performance of opera scenes in which I played several solo roles, a professor told me I was inspirational. I replied that I didn’t want to be inspirational; I wanted a job. Blind performers are looking for work, and too often, we are not taken seriously. How can our talents and accomplishments be fairly evaluated and appreciated when we are praised for simply walking on the stage?

While we invest ourselves in overturning harmful attitudes about blind performers, we must also work to open up opportunities for future blind actors. Acting classes, improv groups, and university programs should know that they can come to the National Federation of the Blind when a blind student seeks to join their ranks. I have heard far too many stories about blind hopefuls being turned away from acting classes because the teachers believe it would be too difficult to accommodate a blind student. I have also heard stories, though fewer, involving the success of a blind participant in an acting or theater class. Blind people must learn gesturing and facial expressions differently from our sighted peers, but we can and do learn them. If we allow ourselves to build relationships with these institutions of learning, we can dispel the misconceptions about what it takes for a blind person to learn to act on stage or screen.

Finally, let’s use our organizational platforms to lift up those blind performers who have experienced full integration on stage or in film. Many of us have played a variety of roles that do not involve blindness. If a blind performer has the opportunity to play a blind character, and they are able to make this portrayal authentic to a true blind experience, we should celebrate this as well. I caution us not to wait for this to occur. Blind characters may be appearing more frequently lately, but they are still few and far between when we consider the sheer number of characters that should be open to us in plays and films.

Even as we have undertaken this campaign, I have received questions. Can blind people play sighted characters? Should a blind person act out a role that is specifically meant for a sighted person? Can a blind person really learn to act as though they live in a sighted body? Those are good questions. I would answer them, however, by proudly proclaiming that this has been done before, particularly on stage. I am not the only one who has played a variety of characters in stage productions. The script does not tell us that the nun, the queen, the sassy house maid, or the god of love must be sighted. These are all characters I have played with varying degrees of accommodations as a blind opera singer. On stage the blindness matters less and can be deemed unimportant as the actor fulfills his/her role in the story. It is my understanding that the film world has not gotten to this point, so I urge us to discuss how we will find our place as ordinary characters on TV and in the movies. Let’s begin by highlighting those who have had those experiences and discussing how we will make them work on film as well.

All of these goals can also be accomplished by forming relationships in Hollywood. There are agencies dedicated to diversity and increasing minority representation in film. We should reach out to them as well as to casting agencies, writers’ guilds, and organizations of producers and directors. Staying silent isn’t an option any longer. If we want representation, we must build the relationships and firmly demand that blind people are represented in stories and casts.

In order to accomplish these goals, we need your help. We need your ideas, perspectives, experiences (for those who have them in this area), and your talents. We cannot achieve the representation we seek if only a few of us are fighting for it. Although we have a good start, we are also exploring uncharted waters. We have not yet explored the limits of blind actors and performers. Let’s join together to raise our expectations and achieve the dreams of blind performers.

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