by Precious Perez
From the Editor: Precious Perez is a board member of the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division. In her article she discusses the barriers that blind performers encounter when they seek jobs as actors, actresses, and directors. All of us know that in these competitive fields, many try and few succeed, but she convincingly argues that breaking into the performing arts is a harder job for blind people. I particularly like her argument that as an organization we will derive tremendous benefits from breaking down the artificial barriers that keep blind people out, because for every blind actor, actress, or director, we directly affect how the public feels about us and consequently have a greater impact on reversing discrimination than we might in getting someone a job as a computer engineer or an editor. I find this concept intriguing. Here is what she has to say:
I am an aspiring music educator and performer studying at Berklee College of Music, and I am currently studying abroad at Berklee's campus in Valencia, Spain. Every member serving on the performing arts division board is doing amazing things, such as performing professionally, dancing, improv, and so much more. Kelsey Nicolay, an NFB member who wrote an article about her dance experiences, struggled with misconceptions in choir and dance throughout high school with people not believing she was capable. Thankfully a precious few did, and they made a significant contribution in helping her achieve one of her dreams. She pushed through and performed with confidence, practiced self-advocacy, and showed appreciation to those who helped her, which is what blind performers do. The going is not always easy, but we do not give up, even though the industry constantly forces us to have to prove ourselves above and beyond our sighted colleagues.
Lack of diversity as defined in the January 2017 Braille Monitor is a common dilemma across the board in many fields, including but not limited to employment, education, and so many other areas, especially Hollywood and the fields of film, television, and performance. Alyssa Rosenberg brought up a very good point, which is that diversity is not just about race but also includes disability. Actor Danny Woodburn once said, “If you’re going to discuss diversity, it has to be completely inclusive of the groups that really define diversity, not just a select group that is popular. It’s not so popular to say people with disabilities define diversity. But the reality is that disability puts the ‘D’ in diversity.” It is evident that disability is commonly forgotten within this definition, and this continues to be a crucial issue.
In his introduction to articles in the January 2017 Braille Monitor regarding diversity in Hollywood, Gary Wunder explained that when blind people are featured in television or modern pop culture, the characters do not represent life as we know it. One example comes to mind when I think about misrepresentation of blind people in the media. Daredevil is a Marvel character meant to have heightened hearing and abilities due to the genre and nature of the show and his role as a superhero. However, his superhuman powers, such as being able to hear someone's heartbeat and the path of a single raindrop, further reinforce society's misconception that blind people have supersonic powers or are in some way more able than our sighted peers. Another controversial example is the horror movie Don't Breathe, featuring a blind war veteran killer with heightened senses. This character in particular further supports the idea that blind people are not and cannot just be ordinary people. Misguided, uneducated portrayals of blind people in television stem from misconceptions and stereotypes, and the fact that blind actors seldom exist in this industry due to preconceived notions of incapability is a clear sign of discrimination. Who better to know what it is like to be blind and convey that on screen than blind people themselves? This is the question I pose as a performer and board member of the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division.
Hollywood has evidenced little interest in the varied stories of persons with disabilities, which in turn deems disabilities to be less common and creates limited roles we can play and the number of opportunities we have to perform. The sad truth is that the majority of disabled actors have played insignificant or supporting roles, which means that people with disabilities have not been given an outlet for their voice to be heard, whether it be in writing the scripts or authenticating the lead roles of blind and disabled characters. There are many aspects of disabilities, varying conditions, stories, and degrees of the spectrum. However, Hollywood keeps us boxed in by assigning us to superficial roles. Society's vision of life as it relates to people with disabilities is heavily based upon how they are portrayed on screen, which is almost always inaccurate or misleading.
As successful performers, musicians, and artists, we in the performing arts division of the NFB subscribe to the philosophy that blindness is a characteristic that does not define us and a characteristic that cannot hold us back. We meet problems with action, which is why we are working to raise awareness and draw attention to the lack of diversity in Hollywood, not only evident in statistics, but told anecdotally through those who strive for their dreams and get shot down due to the misconceptions of Hollywood’s casters.
It is comfortable for people today to believe that discrimination, as deplorable as it was, is a thing of the past and that those who argue otherwise are really responsible for not having the opportunities they say they have been denied. Believing this means that society cannot only celebrate a victory but ignore any obligation it has to remove systemic denial and prejudice. But the truth for those of us who represent minorities is that discrimination is not dead. Sometimes it is cloaked in kindness by those not wishing to hurt our feelings; sometimes it is hidden by ambiguous words that can never be used to substantiate the charge. Sometimes it is cloaked in the absolute certainty that what we wish to do is impossible, and if we aren’t smart enough to see it, somebody must. With all due respect to what we want America to be, we must acknowledge that she is not yet there, that discrimination still exists, and unless we are willing collectively to fight it, it will persist and expand, the result being lessened opportunities for us all.
Sometimes I observe that even our own people take refuge in the belief that blind performers cry discrimination when what they are really encountering is the rough and tumble of making it in the highly competitive entertainment industry. They remind us that the odds of anyone making it big are slim and that this is likely the reason why we find ourselves in the balcony looking down rather than on the stage looking out. I am betting that they have not seen the struggles of blind actors who have been trying to achieve their dreams and have never been given a chance. To those of you who believe this has nothing to do with being blind or disabled, may I suggest that your viewpoint is based upon your exaggerated perception of our limitations, that you too fall victim to the idea that all performers must be able-bodied, and perhaps that you think we who want to reach for the brass ring should content ourselves with more traditional, more realistic jobs. When you say you have seen no qualified actors and that there is no discrimination because we just aren’t good enough, is that fact or opinion? Have you met aspiring blind actors? Have you spoken to employers in Hollywood and other branches of the entertainment industry and inquired about the number of blind actors applying for roles? Until you have done so, such strong arguments against our hopes and aspirations have no solid foundation. To discredit the efforts of those who fight for these opportunities is offensive not only to would-be blind performers but to all blind people who try to expand the number of fields in which we may compete and thrive.
I readily concede that yes, talent is a crucial factor, and yes, some people rise and some do not; but overall, blind and disabled people have less of a shot at the opportunity to win or lose in the industry, period.
The NFB Performing Arts Division does not believe that success is being handed an acting position based solely on representing a certain percentage of the population. The assumption that society’s views of us can be changed by the majority of the blind population successfully living their lives outside of the public eye is simply false. In fact, employers are unaware and blind to this small reality themselves, pun intended. They only know what they see in the media, what their parents have taught them about disabilities, and their own personal views. These views are skewed, not by the disabled people living normal lives, but by stereotypes that continue to be reinforced by the characters they see—or don’t see—in books, movies, and television.
It is a given that all performers who harbor the talent and passion to pursue their dreams in a world where a career in the performing arts is not always taken seriously must work hard to gain the few opportunities available. However, blind actors and performers have to work harder than most with even less gain to show for it. If the entertainment industry doesn’t believe that disabled people can perform at the same level as those who are not disabled, we cannot get hired. If we cannot get hired, we will not have the chance to educate the industry and authenticate the representation of blind and disabled people on screen. This further deprives us of the benefit that will come when the entertainment industry portrays us as we actually are and opens to the sighted public the vast array of talents and aspirations we possess.Yes, Hollywood is a business. Yes, it must make an end product the user will buy. These things are obvious. However, most people are drawn to reality—stories that educate and capture truth. Audiences are drawn to authenticity, and most are willing to understand the truth and recognize it for what it is. Businesses are there to make money, but they are not allowed to discriminate. Reality is a product that is priceless and timeless. I think I speak for all blind performers and aspiring actors when I say Hollywood needs to rethink its assumptions. Hollywood needs to realize that each and every person with a disability has their own unique personality and that portraying this individuality with authenticity is the best way to increase ratings and rake in money at the box office. It is time for employers in entertainment to know and understand that blind actors/actresses are capable, talented, and bring unique traits to the table. Blind and disabled actors deserve a fair chance. This is not the end, and people with disabilities will never cease fighting for an equal role on a level playing field of diversity in Hollywood and in all other aspects of the entertainment industry.