Famous People in Wheelchairs

‘Glee’ Actor Kevin McHale Angers Disability Advocates

In the television series “Glee,” Kevin McHale plays the role of Artie Abrams who uses a wheelchair. Many disability advocates and individuals are upset that a more suitable actor was not chosen for the role due to McHale not using a wheelchair in daily life.

Mixed opinions abound about the subject.  Glee producers did audition actors who are always in a wheelchair, but the person best fitting the role outside of whether or not they have a disability was chosen. Many feel that they should have embraced the opportunity to hire a person with real disabilities who truly fits the role.

Recently an episode aired where the advisor/teacher William Schuester requires everyone to spend at least 3 hours a day in their wheelchair as well as perform a song-and-dance number.  Many people are happy that the episode is intended to raise awareness of the challenges people in wheelchair might face in going about their daily business, but they are still rather unhappy that Kevin McHale is not really in a wheelchair.

“I think there’s a fear of litigation, that a person with disabilities might slow a production down, fear that viewers might be uncomfortable,” said Robert David Hall, longtime cast member of CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

All of that is nonsense, said Hall: “I’ve made my living as an actor for 30 years and I walk on two artificial legs.”

There can be added production expenses, said veteran casting director Sheila Manning, such as hiring a translator for a performer who is deaf.

“It costs a little more, but look at the positive reaction they’re (the networks) getting. I think that more than offsets the cost,” Manning said, adding that it’s the morally right thing to do.

The executive producer of Glee, Brad Falchuk, wants to represent America as a whole with getting the best performers possible.

“We brought in anyone: white, black, Asian, in a wheelchair,” he said. “It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV.”

He understands the concern and frustration expressed by the disabled community, he said. But Kevin McHale, 21, who plays Artie, excels as an actor and singer and “it’s hard to say no to someone that talented,” Falchuk said.

About one-fifth of Americans age 5 to 64 have a physical or mental disability – more than 50 million, according to U.S. Census figures. But fewer than 2 percent of the characters on TV reflect that reality, according to a 2005 study of Screen Actors Guild members conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The cause has union support: A campaign sponsored by three major entertainment guilds and aimed at creating equal employment opportunities for actors, broadcasters and recording artists just marked its first year.

More is at stake than actors’ careers, say advocates.

“When a person with a disability sees a positive image on TV that looks like them, their whole attitude changes. It gives them hope for what they can do in the future,” said Castaneda of the Media Access Office.

What do you think?  Do you believe an actor portraying a person with a disability should always have that disability when possible?  Or should the best person for the part get the role?

See a snippet from the “Wheels” episode featuring the cast of Glee performing Proud Mary below: