In June 2021, Jim Sheridan, director of the 1990 Academy Award-winning film My Left Foot, said he didn't think he could have made the film today without casting a disabled actor in the lead.
"I don't think you could make it without trying to find somebody physically impaired [to play the lead]," he told Sky News.
"I think it's a different world and you'd be duty-bound."
The lead role of Christy Brown, whose autobiography the film is an adaptation of, went on to win Daniel Day-Lewis the Oscar for Best Actor.
His portrayal of Brown, who has cerebral palsy, received rave reviews, especially due to his method-acting behind the scenes.
Sheridan's daughter Kirsten recalled: "He'd call you by your film name, and you'd call him Christy … You'd be feeding him, wheeling him around. During the entire film, I only saw him walking once."
Sheridan said Day-Lewis believed staying in character was an extension of respect to the disabled child actors on set as well.
But what must it have been like to be one of those child actors on the set of My Left Foot? To not only watch a man act as though he too had cerebral palsy on screen, but to see him continue the charade once filming stopped.
How would they have felt, then, to later see him walking on stage to accept an award for how well he imitated them?
Sheridan called it a matter of respect. I think we have very different ideas of what respect looks like.
How cripping up is justified
Day-Lewis was not the first, and certainly will not be the last, non-disabled actor to receive critical acclaim for their portrayal of a disabled person.
The last time a disabled actor won an Academy Award for portraying a disabled character was in 1986 when Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God.
As actor and filmmaker John Lawson points out, over 93 years, there were 61 nominators of Academy Awards for actors portraying disabled characters. 27 of these nominees went on to win the Oscar, with only two out of these 27 actors being disabled.
Among the disabled community, this practice is known as "cripping up" — traditionally, the term refers to an able-bodied actor "dressing up" as a physically disabled character, but this term is often used more broadly to cover non-disabled people playing intellectually disabled characters or characters with mental illnesses, and neurotypical actors playing Autistic roles.
The practice of cripping up is justified by non-disabled actors and casting directors in many ways.
For example, actors frequently portray lives different from their own, whether these are characters or portrayals of real people from history, and it is part of their job to empathise with the role and to understand the character as deeply as possible in order to bring them to life. Therefore, cripping up is often justified as just another way of having an actor use their skills to bring a life different to their own to the stage or screen.
We're seeing able-bodied actors being praised for accurately portraying tropes about disability, not accurately portraying disability.
Why casting disabled actors matters
An argument that has been raised against limiting the casting call to only disabled people is that casting directors are possibly excluding the best actor for the job.
However, this idea ignores the fact that being cast in the first place is often inaccessible for disabled people, who may also be the best actors for the job.
Disabled actors are also able to bring more insight into the characterisation, questioning harmful tropes in regards to disabled villainy, and persistent narratives such as "inspiration porn".
Inspiration porn refers to when disabled people are objectified and viewed as a source of inspiration for non-disabled people. This is common with disabled athletes, where quotes such as "your excuses are invalid" or "the only disability is a bad attitude" are placed over images of Paralympians.
It also affects disabled people in face-to-face situations, where able-bodied people will tell disabled people going about their day-to-day lives, especially those who use aids like wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs, that they are an inspiration to them.
Films such as Wonder, an adaption of a book about a young boy with a facial difference, and Music, Sia's film about a non-verbal Autistic girl, have been criticised as being inspiration porn, and both star non-disabled actors playing disabled characters.
In the film Me Before You, able-bodied actor Sam Claflin portrays Will, a quadriplegic character who falls in love with his carer Lou, before deciding to commit assisted suicide, due to his inability to accept his life as a disabled person. It's a plot that received criticism from disability rights activists for pushing the harmful view that disabled people are better off dead.
With an able-bodied cast and the film based on a book by an able-bodied author, there were no real moments for disabled people with the relevant life experience to raise concerns before the film release, where it was met with protests and boycotts from members of the disabled community.
The book's author Jojo Moyes explained that the message of her novel was not that disabled lives are not worth living, but that the novel simply explores the experience of one character. There are additional scenes in the novel that did not make it into the film that explore the experiences of other quadriplegics, and these characters explain that while life can be difficult, they do not all share Will's desire to end their lives.
Let's bring an end to cripping up
In September 2020, the Academy of Motion Arts and Picture Sciences announced that it would be introducing new standards for representation that films need to meet in order to qualify for an Oscar in the category of Best Picture.
From 2024, films will need to meet at least two out of four standards, with standards for On-Screen Representation, Creative Leadership, Industry Access and Opportunities, and Audience Development.
Meanwhile, the television show Hawkeye has finally acknowledged Clint Barton's use of hearing aids in the comics the show is based on and introduced its audience to Deaf antagonist Maya Lopez, played by Deaf actress Alaqua Cox.
Marvel Studios also introduced another Deaf superhero this year, this time in the film The Eternals, where the once-hearing, white male character of Makkari was adapted into a black, Deaf woman, portrayed by Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. Ridloff was approached directly for the role, which was written originally as a hearing character.
At the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the films CODA, Wiggle Room, and the television show (and VR experience) Four Feet High were screened; all cast disabled actors in the roles of disabled characters, including the aforementioned Marlee Matlin.
And on the red carpet, the team behind Crip Camp, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar at the 2021 Academy Awards, attended together. Of the team, writer-director James LeBrecht, impact producer Andraéa LaVant, and star Judy Huemann, are all wheelchair users, and LaVant's service dog also accompanied her.
But as Crip Camp writer David Radcliff tweeted: "I hope this is a tipping point after which seeing disabled people at awards doesn't seem so revolutionary."
The ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability in a campaign to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.