Nearly 26% of the total U.S. population lives with a disability, yet only 3.5% of the regular characters on television shows were disabled as of 2020. While the number did show an improvement compared to previous years, it still leaves out a massive part of the demographic.
We sat down with Kurt Yaeger, a man who wears many hats — actor, athlete, advocate and is an amputee — to understand how the question of representation is being interpreted by Hollywood and where the industry needs to step up to make meaningful changes.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in August 2020 and has been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of role will you be playing on the show you’re currently working on?
On “Another Life” on Netflix, the show is a sci-fi feature that takes place partly on Earth in the future, and also in space. I play a military character.
And does this character have a disability?
Yeah, for this character they wanted an amputee to play it.
And when you audition, do you feel like you’re preferred more for such roles compared to able-bodied characters?
I audition for a lot of roles with disabilities just because I am an amputee. A lot of times, it’s unfortunate that you audition for someone, they like you and they find out you’re an amputee and they only bring you in for those roles, it’s sort of catch-22. It can be good, it gets you opportunities but at the same time, because of the way film and TV is made, people behave as if people with disabilities (PWD) can’t [perform in certain roles] instead of understanding how much more they can [do].
Have there been instances where you’ve faced discrimination or infrastructural challenges in your line of work?
Nothing for me when it comes to being physical because I’m a below-the-knee amputee, that’s kind of like a papercut [laughs].
I don’t need a lot of assistance or aid. But, I’ve gone to auditions where I’ve had friends who couldn’t audition because there were stairs and they were wheelchair users. They were auditioning people in the parking lots because they didn’t have an elevator.
The number of disabled characters onscreen is already limited and when you have able-bodied actors taking up a bulk of those roles, what is missing in their portrayal?
I think when you live in that identity, whatever the disability is, you have an experience that is so unique. The way you go grocery shopping as a PWD — whether you’re blind, deaf, amputee or wheelchair user — general society’s perception of you is a lived experience that you can’t really replicate. People who generally play a PWD, they play their perception of what it would be like, in their mind, to have that disability instead of actually playing it authentically.
I can speak to being an amputee, most of the characters are written as “Oh that guy is missing his leg, it’s really sad, it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.” Having my leg amputated [after a motorcycle accident in 2006] was definitely a bad day, but in the totality of my life, it hasn’t been the worst thing. Being an amputee doesn’t define me.
They always write characters with disabilities as having some grand perspective or uniqueness, but sometimes you’re just a dad. But they never write an amputee just being a dad or a wheelchair user being a lover or a person with Down syndrome being a business owner because they can’t conceive of it.
The writers write what they know and 99.9% of all the writers in Hollywood are not disabled. When they try to write multi-dimensional characters, that’s where the tropes come in. From an information perspective, all they have is other films and TV shows or society’s perception of what a disabled person is.
You can’t have representation without talking about opportunities for people from the community. How does that translate into the realm of actors with disabilities or able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities?
“Unless it says “male, 30s, fit, amputee,” they won’t bring me in. For 95% of the roles, a disabled person doesn’t even have the opportunity to audition.”
The two skills you need as an actor to do well are the art of auditioning and the art of acting. The only way you get good at auditioning is classes and going to auditions. Most people with disabilities generally have lower sources of income, a lot of them [aren’t hired] for a lot of flexible jobs like bartending where you can leave when you need to for an audition.
In more fixed office jobs, it’s a little more of a struggle to go to a class because of scheduling. When you do go, people treat you differently because of their perceptions so you’re getting a measured version of an audition techniques class. Then, you want to start auditioning you can’t, partly because some casting offices aren’t accessible. For someone who is deaf or blind, they don’t get any of the services needed like an ASL interpreter…that is by extension, discrimination.
Unless it says “male, 30s, fit, amputee,” they won’t bring me in. For 95% of the roles, a disabled person doesn’t even have the opportunity to audition, not even to get the job but just to practice the art of auditioning, so they get like one to two auditions a year. Then, they’re also seeing able-bodied people for the role who have auditioned maybe 30 times that month. So the skillset is even underutilized and so the expectations on someone with a disability is so egregiously flawed.
Also, actors with disabilities aren’t cutting their teeth in commercials where most actors learn because they [question] why would they want an amputee to sell suntan lotion. So it’s a compounding effect that leads to a lack of representation, including bad writing.
The conversation around representation in terms of race, disability and sexuality is evolving in Hollywood but do you think it’s changing fast enough?
I could say there’s been double the amount of roles but if it went from 1% to 2%, it’s not that big of a leap. I haven’t seen any major movement, I’ve seen minor movement and I’ve seen individuals move, which is the most important thing.
When you can change an individual’s perception then they become the advocate for you, or for themselves to create better characters, more dynamic storytelling, then they make better stories. Big groups in terms of groups versus your group is a very dangerous mode to always measure everything by. I think it’s the individual’s responsibility, mine would be to inform a person who is not an amputee because they can’t possibly know.
As a producer and writer, how are you hoping to change the existing narrative around disabilities?
I’m a white man who became “diverse’ because of an accident and it opened my eyes to everything around me. So now as a writer, I’m more aware of how much I don’t know by how much I had to learn. And if I am in the highest level of privilege as a white male, then I can inform my direct colleague as an equal in their eyes, then they’re going to be listening to me more potentially because I am them. So I have to be representative of everyone…it’s a unique position to be in.
10 years down the line, what changes are you hoping to see in your industry?
In a position of power at each studio, like an executive producer or head of development, if only one of them was a disabled person, everything would change. If zero executives are disabled, then there’s no power, it’s just us begging for crumbs from the table.
To me, [more than different representing groups], it is about discovering the little details, highlighting the unique experiences of the individual. I want to see how your experience is different from someone who looks just like you, that is what TV shows are all about.