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Getting A Human To Play A Disabled Person Is Not Too Much To Ask

February 12, 2019

There are some ideas that should never get past the brainstorming stage. All in a Row, a new play about autism at the Southwark Playhouse, London, is under fire for reportedly using a puppet to play the part of an autistic child, with the National Autistic Society pulling its support for the production. It doesn’t help that the puppet is grey and mawkish, with earlier versions appearing more suited to a horror movie.

It would be easy to dismiss this row as another example of our online offence culture, but it goes to the heart of the dehumanisation that disabled people face – quite literally by representing us as other than human. It is particularly damaging here because of stereotypes of autism, which characterise neurodiverse individuals as unfeeling and with no autonomy.

A spokesman for the play said it was “untenable” to get autistic performers to play the part, and that there are clearly difficulties with casting children – and getting “informed consent from a nonverbal autistic actor aged 11 to play the role”. But theatre should use art to push boundaries. Casting some of the non-disabled characters as puppets would have been more thought-provoking. Sesame Street recently introduced an autistic character, Julia, played by a brightly coloured puppet, surrounded by fellow puppets. It is a punch to the stomach to watch all the non-disabled parts in All in a Row played by actors, while the one disabled character is an inanimate figure pulled by strings.

This is a real missed opportunity when the playwright has talked of wanting to challenge ideas about disability. At a time when the casting of non-disabled actors in disabled roles is criticised, it seems a grotesquely backwards step. Getting a human to play a disabled person is not too much to ask.

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