I quickly turned to the New York Times Arts section to peruse the aforementioned article. Sure enough, while disabled characters from 1970's TV shows and today are mentioned, it seems that entire swaths of people (including Deaf actors) are missing from the commentator's analysis. As a hard of hearing woman, I found this a little baffling, especially because Matlin has been on SO MANY different, and popular, television programs over the years -- as she herself points out, before mentioning all the other Deaf actors she can think of on her feed:
But back to Ms. Matlin's point. There are a LOT of actors with disabilities working today. And shouldn't their contribution be recognized outside her tweets about their mere existence on planet Earth? Frankly, I needed her reminders, because her messages got me thinking. I have a disability, I write about it all the time, I take pride in exploring it for (hopefully) the benefit of my audiences. Yet how often have I actually worked with performers who have disabilities? I think the answer can be counted on one hand. There are artists out there who write about disability FOR actors with disabilities. Not only do they provide work for highly undervalued and diverse performers, they successfully bridge the gap between so-called "normal" audiences and the disabled performers; John Belluso was one such playwright before his untimely death. Why am I not doing this, too?
The answer can't be as simple as, "I don't know where to find actors with disabilities." I find them when I look. And I do look, often discovering cool theatrical events along the way. But then there's this other part of me, this tiny voice that says, "What you try to do is make disabilities relatable by theatricalizing/translating the experience of living with/perceiving life through them. Couldn't a non-disabled actor learn something from that?" Certainly, I've worked with actors who can hear, who have painstakingly observed me in order to portray what it's like not to hear (both physically and emotionally); ultimately, they have given amazing performances. So I don't want to devalue their hard and respectful work with my doubts. But also, there's this niggling worry at the back of my mind. If never given the opportunity to represent themselves within the work I create, how am I serving people with disabilities? Am I so mainstream that I can't actually connect with a community I belong to by virtue of my hearing loss, by virtue of being just who I am?
That's a question that's been haunting me for some time. It leaves me at a loss, completely stymied. There's virtue in being caught between two worlds, I suppose. But other times, it feels like I'm serving two masters, without even fully understanding my obligation to one. Tweet sessions like the one above remind to keep exploring, to keep working, to recognize myself in others, but still demand more of the culture at large. I can only thank Ms. Matlin for that, and keep working to broaden my horizons and my artistic partnerships.