Well, you don’t look disabled: the thorny issue of visible impairments taking centre stage


Paul Wilshaw is an actor with Mind the Gap theatre company, based in Bradford. He’s been interested in theatre, television and the soaps from a young age, but struggles with casting that demands a specific ‘type’ of impairment.

Mind the Gap Contained

Liam Bairstow is one of a handful of learning disabled actors who have got mainstream roles. Photograph: Tim Smith

I started acting at the age of 10 in Dorset, and moved up to Bradford 3 years ago to pursue acting with Mind the Gap theatre company. I identify as a learning disabled actor.

I have always been interested in theatre, television and the soaps from a young age and it seems disabled people are getting more roles, both on television and in theatre. The BBC, Channel 4 and ITV have or are searching for more disabled actors and people to put on their shows, which is great.

But there are ongoing issues with representation of disabled people on stage and screen. I have a hidden impairment and have been told, when I tell people I am disabled, “Well you don’t look disabled.” It is often spoken as if this is an achievement in and of itself.

So my question is: what happens to actors who don’t look ‘disabled enough’ to get disabled roles, but apparently look ‘too disabled’ to get non-disabled roles?

Paul Wilshaw

Paul Wilshaw. Photograph: Les Parkinson

I do believe that the industry is changing towards learning disabled people being represented on TV. However, the change feels very slow and it feels that only specific learning disabilities, such as Down’s Syndrome or autism, are being represented, which is problematic.

I am pleased to note that the BBC are currently doing a call out for disabled actors for a 3-day workshop, which will hopefully show a wide range of talent. But I do wonder how many of these actors will be learning disabled, and if there will be a bias towards particular impairments within that.

It sometimes seems that getting the opportunity can be a matter of the way someone looks, that they fit a particular view of what it means to be a learning disabled person. Of course, I am pleased that we are getting to see talented actors on television, such as Liam Bairstow in Coronation Street, and Sarah Gordy in Call the Midwife and Upstairs Downstairs, whose work I very much admire.

There does, though, need to be more variety shown on television. Being learning disabled encompasses a broad spectrum of people, and the focus on impairment itself is frustrating. There are so many talented actors out there who are not getting their shot because they don’t fit into pre-conceived ideas about what a disabled person ‘should’ look like.

Non-disabled actors have been given disabled roles and get Oscars for films and TV awards for playing a disabled person. Will the industry change soon, so disabled actors will just be seen as actors and go up against non-disabled actors for roles? Unfortunately, I don’t think learning disabled actors will be going up against non- disabled actors for roles and auditions anytime soon. It is a shame as I do think it would give the industry the shake up it needs.

I spoke to Robert Ewens, who is going to be in the Christmas episode of Father Brown, and he made some really good points about auditions:

“I’m in a bit of a catch 22 when it comes to auditions because I have an invisible impairment. My Cerebral Palsy isn’t visible. I try to go for disabled roles, get told I’m not disabled enough, but can’t get auditions for non-disabled roles.”

We need to be more open-minded when it comes to disability, it doesn’t always fit into a specific mold in terms of how people experience it, particularly in terms of what is visible. It’s not that black and white.

Mind the Gap's Of Mice and Men

Rob Ewens in Mind the Gap’s Of Mice and Men. Photograph: Tim Smith 2011

There are 32.7m people of working age in England of which 6.9m are registered disabled, and of which 1.4 million are registered learning disabled.

This is 1 in 5 people. So real life is not shown. Why?

Why is the big word in the last sentence and there is not one simple answer to that.

Sarah Gordy said it perfectly in the Huffington Post:

“It’s important for people with a learning disability to be seen on TV, simply because we exist, we are everywhere. We are not mythical beings and we can play characters that people can relate to and are interested in.”

I totally agree with what Sarah says. We are here and we can play characters that an audience wants to see.

If you are a learning disabled or disabled actor: go for every role there possibly is out there, non-disabled or disabled, TV or theatre. If you want to do this, but your agent is not putting you forward for it then talk to them. If you can get your foot or chair in the door just one inch then, that is one inch more than where you were yesterday.

My other question is why is there still a preconceived notion of what a learning disabled actor is capable of?

There is a preconception of what we can do, and that we can’t read scripts. For some actors this is true, but that should not be a barrier. If access requirements are met for learning disabled actors, you will get the best outcomes. Coronation Street, to their credit, seem to be doing well at this point by not making Liam’s impairment be the sole subject of his storylines. He is just being a character, and in doing so it is opening people’s eyes, which is what soaps and television programmes should do in changing people’s preconceptions on disability.

Casting directors and producers would do well to talk to others who have cast learning disabled actors and perhaps that would provide a wake-up call as to the realities and practicalities.

Some disabled actors cannot learn lines, but if you want that actor, find out the best way for him or her to learn and you will get the right results. Some casting agents are worried about putting learning disabled actors up for non-disabled roles because they might not get the role and fear the actor will not be able to cope with the rejection.

My answer to that is: don’t be. We are actors, we can easily say we don’t want to go for that role, and we have dealt with a whole lot of things in our life, one knockback won’t discourage us.

The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have all stated their intention of casting more disabled actors on TV and backstage, which is a good start.

But please, show a variety of learning disabled people, and not just on reality TV. Learning disabled people are popular choices for reality TV shows. The editing often creates a misconception of a learning disabled person because of what is believed to make good TV, instead of a realistic side of that person, which is why it is called reality TV after all.

I truly believe the industry is losing out on some great talent because of the way people look or don’t look, or because of preconceptions around learning disability. The arts and television has a chance to change and for this to be the generation that changes people’s notions about learning disability, like the London 2012 ceremonies and disability arts activity did for physical impairment.