‘CripTales’ challenges Hollywood’s disability representation practices

“See the ability not the disability.”

This familiar saying quoted in episode 4 of “CripTales” reflects common attempts to separate the person from their disability.

“CripTales” adamantly rejects this platitude, preferring to face the reality of life for people with disabilities head-on.

Produced by AMC Networks in collaboration with the American Association for People with Disabilities (AAPD), the six-episode online TV series is part of “Visibility Collection,” produced for National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

In each brief episode, a different character with a disability tells some aspect of their fictional story, directly addressing the camera in a monologue running the duration of the video.

The series successfully avoids two of the common pitfalls of Hollywood disability representation.

Firstly, it refuses to turn its characters into ‘inspiration porn’ – which would reduce disabled people to sob stories intended to inspire viewers, defining them solely through their disabilities.

Secondly, the show equally refuses to ignore the presence of its characters’ disabilities, instead requiring viewers to come to grips with its often blunt, no holds barred approach to the realities it addresses.

The result of avoiding these extremes is a series of credible, balanced glimpses into life with disabilities.

 “You see me, I am the ability and the disability,” Hamish (Robert Softley Gale) declares in episode 4. “I am Spasticus Autisticus. You see all of me. This is what I am! See this!”

The show no more flinches away from the reality of Hamish’s cerebral palsy than it does from the appearance of actress Jackie Hagan’s amputated limb (Episode 2).

The characters cry, laugh, and make the kinds of jokes about their disabilities that only they can make – and that only writers with disabilities can write.

Created as a means of displaying the artistic and acting capacities of people with disabilities, the series is entirely written, directed and performed by disabled artists.

Curated by Matt Fraser, “CripTales” calls out film and TV makers’ tendency to either ignore those with disabilities altogether, or to cast actors without disabilities to portray disabilities on screen.

In the opening episode, Fraser’s character voices the thoughts of an actor waiting to go into an audition and waiting to see the awkward, uncomfortable reaction of an audition panel to the sight of his disabled hands.

His monologue displays just how complex and unfair auditions are for actors with disabilities.

Actors with disabilities are able to tell their own stories, “CripTales” insists.

And if there was ever any doubt of the truth in this statement, the powerful performances of Matt Fraser, Carly Houston, Robert Softley Gale and the rest of the cast are more than enough to prove this point.

Carrying a 13-minute episode entirely on one’s own is one of the most demanding of acting tasks, and not only does each “CripTales” cast member achieve this – they make it look easy.

True, with only six episodes in the series, “CripTales” is limited in its scope.

The show’s curator, Matt Fraser told BBC America that the six writers who wrote for the show were allowed to choose what they wrote about for their episode, which did result in some gaps in representation.

No matter whether they had tried to represent as broad a range of disabilities as possible, or not, six episodes is simple not enough space to cover all of the forms that disability can take.

However, each character the show does portray is a wholistic person, with dreams, hopes and fears which all audiences can understand.

Their stories wrestle with questions of sexual orientation, reproductive challenges, abuse at the hands of caretakers and the all too prevalent “but, you don’t look disabled” stereotyping.

“CripTales” boldly challenges viewers to see life through the eyes of the shows’ creators, if only for 13 minutes.