Ableism row ignites over Elephant Man casting

Action: Charlie Heaton (from Stranger Things) will play Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man.

Should able-bodied actors play disabled roles? Critics have slammed the BBC’s upcoming drama The Elephant Man for casting an able-bodied star as its disabled protagonist.

It is one of the classic roles on stage and screen: Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. Born in 1862, he had severe physical deformities and ended up as an exhibit in a touring Victorian freak show.

But a TV adaptation of his life has come under fire for casting an able-bodied actor in the lead role. Charlie Heaton, who found fame in the Netflix hit Stranger Things, will play Merrick in a new BBC show. Heaton said he was “honoured” to play a part he described as “a challenge for any actor”.

Not everyone was happy. A spokesman for the charity Scope claimed that “a massive pool of disabled talent had been overlooked” for the role.

Similarly, actor Lisa Hammond (who uses a wheelchair) vented her frustrations on Twitter: “Ah the familiar story of a non disabled actor getting [to] tell story of a real disabled man.”

Representation of disability has become a hot topic in recent years, with several films featuring disabled characters hitting the big screen. Think of Eddie Redmayne’s star turn as Steven Hawking, or Colin Firth’s portrayal of the stammering George VI in The King’s Speech. In all, 16% of Oscar wins go to actors playing disabled characters.

However, rarely do disabled actors share in these accolades.

In the UK, 14% of people in employment consider themselves disabled, but only 0.3% of the total film workforce are disabled. For actors on TV, this figure rises slightly to 1.2%.

It is a similar story in America where research shows that 95% of TV characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.

For playwright Christopher Shinn, this disparity proves that “pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”

Columnist Frances Ryan even compares able-bodied actors playing disabled characters with blackface: “We wouldn’t accept actors blacking up, so why applaud ‘cripping up’?” she asks.

Should able-bodied actors play disabled roles?


Absolutely not, some argue. Disabled people should have the right to represent themselves. Casting non-disabled people only perpetuates stereotypes and denies opportunities to disabled actors who are already woefully under-represented in the media. What’s more, their specific life experiences make them better suited to these roles in the first place.

Hold on, others respond. The entire artistry of acting comes from people putting themselves in unfamiliar positions. Insisting the lives of actors resemble that of their characters ruins the illusion. Furthermore, casting big-name actors (able-bodied or not) can bring a film more success and actually build more awareness around the disability being portrayed.

You Decide

  1. Should all disabled roles go to disabled actors?
  2. In your experience, are disabled people discriminated against in society?


  1. Make a list of all the films you have seen that feature a disabled character. In each case, do you think a disabled actor should have been cast (if an able-bodied actor was cast instead). Why/why not? Would you say that any of the films you have listed exploit disability in a harmful way?
  2. Read the Frances Ryan piece for The Guardian by following the link in Become An Expert. How does the writer use language effectively? Pick out one quote that you think is particularly effective. Do you agree with what the writer says in the piece? Why/why not?

Some People Say...

“The world worries about disability more than disabled people do.”

Warwick Davis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In response to the criticism, a BBC spokesperson said the following: “The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability and we are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles.” The adaptation is due to be screened next year.
What do we not know?
If the BBC intends to change the casting in response to the criticism. Several able-bodied actors have played Joseph Merrick in previous adaptations. We also do not know if any disabled actors auditioned for the lead role, and if so, how many.

Word Watch

Classic roles
Actors including Bradley Cooper, Mark Hamill and David Bowie have all played the Elephant Man in film and stage adaptations.
It is thought that he suffered from an extremely rare condition called Proteus syndrome. The illness causes severe overgrowth of skin, bones, muscles and fatty tissues. He died aged 27, reportedly from a dislocated neck. It is believed that the injury happened because Merrick, who normally slept sitting up because of the weight of his head, had attempted to sleep lying down to “be like other people”.
A national disability charity founded in 1951.
Steven Hawking
His life is depicted in the film The Theory of Everything.
Of people aged 16-64, according to the Office for National Statistics.
By the Ruderman Family Foundation.
When non-black people wear make-up or costumes to make themselves appear black.


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