Listening With An Open Eye


by Linda Bove, Sharon Jensen, David Leventhal
Published by the Non-Traditional Casting Project, Inc., Copyright © 2002

For nearly 300 years in America, people with disabilities were hidden from public view, ostracized and excluded from participation at every level of our society. Today, of the estimated 54 million Americans with some form of a disability, only a small percentage, 21%, are employed.

Why this exclusion? For one reason, having a disability has historically been perceived as having a fundamental limitation. Despite striking, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary offered by the examples of individuals such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Ray Charles, Marlee Matlin, Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder, King Jordan, Evelyn Glennie, and Diane Schuur, misperceptions of limitation and inadequacy regarding disability have persisted and are deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

Historically, the basic assumption practiced by casting directors, artistic directors, directors and producers in the theatre, television and film industry has been that unless a role were specified as culturally-specific or disability-specific, it was meant to be played by a white, non-disabled actor. Until recently, even in the few cases where a role has been Deaf-specific, blind-specific, or wheelchair-specific, the assumption most often was still that it was meant to be played by a non-disabled actor. In other words, actors with disabilities have seldom been given the opportunity to play themselves, let alone anyone else. At the same time, hearing and sighted actors have played these roles to great acclaim; Academy Award winners Jane Wyman in 1949, Patty Duke in 1963 and Al Pacino in 1993, to name three, are testament to this. To make matters worse, most often the roles they have portrayed, as written, have only served to perpetuate stereotypes of characters who have been idealized, sentimentalized or demonized, most frequently as victim or hero/ine.


Historically, there were few role models for talented, young aspiring actors who were Deaf or blind or who used a wheelchair; the few acting roles that were written as disability-specific characters primarily perpetuated stereotypes; and the industry that the aspiring disabled actor encountered was anything but welcoming. This longstanding pattern of exclusion is borne out by the fact that the number of actors in the three performing unions that identify themselves as Deaf or hard of hearing, as blind or low vision or as having an ambulatory disability represents less than one half of one percent, even though persons with disabilities in America account for 19 percent of our national population.

Challenging prevailing conditions, beginning in the 1970’s through today, a core of trailblazing artists who happen to be Deaf, blind or who have ambulatory disabilities – Bernard Bragg, Phyllis Frelich, Victoria Ann Lewis, Ed Waterstreet, Julianna Fjeld, Susan Nussbaum, Cheryl Marie Wade, Kitty Lunn, Michelle A. Banks, Monique Holt, John Belluso, Pamela Sabaugh, to name some – set about creating their own artistic opportunities. At the same time, a handful of pioneering artistic directors, directors, writers, producers and casting directors such as Gordon Davidson, Mark Medoff, John Dillon, Michael Kahn, Linda Hartzell, Irene Lewis, Dr. Neal Baer, Stephen Herek, Sharon Bialy, John Frank Levey, April Webster, Judy Dennis and Robert Falls recognized that artists with disabilities had the same proportion of talent and imagination within their ranks as non-disabled artists. As this has happened, it has become brilliantly clear to audiences that actors and other artists with disabilities contribute a wealth of unique experiences, perspectives, and language to American mainstream culture that is powerful, vital and available no where else.


Since 1986, the Non-Traditional Casting Project has worked to address and seek solutions to the problems of exclusion and racism in theatre, film and television. In 1987, we established Artist Files/Online, the largest files in the country of actors with disabilities and actors of color. We recognized that the exclusion of these actors was not only discriminatory, it denied audiences the talent of these performers and in instances in which non-disabled actors were cast in disability-specific roles, it denied audiences the experience of Deafness and disability accurately portrayed. We recognized that Deaf culture is an important part of our national heritage and cultural legacy that should be reflected accurately on our stages and screens and shared with a broad spectrum of the American public.

For years at the Non-Traditional Casting Project – in spite of the groundbreaking efforts of the individuals named above and a handful of others – our suggesting an actor with a disability to decision-makers for non-traditional roles was most often met with a standard reaction of, “Not for this. Maybe next time.” We realized that providing access to talent was not enough. More was needed. As a means of assisting industry decision-makers with the process, we conceived the idea of publishing a series of resource guides focusing on Deaf and hard of hearing actors and actors with disabilities.

What is Listening with an Open Eye?

The first in our series, Listening with an Open Eye is intended to provide employers background and practical information with respect to working with Deaf and hard of hearing actors in auditions, rehearsal and performance. In order to present this information in the most accessible format, we are publishing Listening with an Open Eye solely on the internet.

Specifically, we hope this guide will provide a bridge to broaden the pool of talent you normally consider and that you will take advantage of the expanded creative possibilities inherent in working with Deaf and hard of hearing actors. Finally, we hope that Listening with an Open Eye will encourage you to hire Deaf and hard of hearing actors for both Deaf-specific and non-traditional roles.


What does it contain?

Listening with an Open Eye includes information about Deaf culture and American Sign Language; procedure and comportment for planning and executing a production, covering the arc of the audition, rehearsal and production process; and the role of the interpreter. In addition, related organizations are referenced.

How is it formatted?

The information contained within Listening with an Open Eye is divided into sections: Background, Planning and Executing a Production. Within these sections, information is organized into easily navigable “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Informational Headings”, which enable the reader to use the guide at her/his own pace and to extract the material in which s/he is most interested. In addition, the guide includes audition, rehearsal and production experiences contributed by Deaf and hard of hearing performers, as well as casting directors, directors and writers who have worked with Deaf and hard of hearing actors. For additional information about the various organizations included in the Guide, you may click on anything that appears in blue and you will be taken to that organization’s website.


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