In her first blog, our new disability campaigner – and successful actress – Samantha Renke offers her insight into what it is like being famous and disabled and whether societal perceptions on disability are changing.
Actors are used to rejection and disappointment. They are used to people judging them on the way they look, talk, dress and they are used to being stereotyped and living on next to nothing. So you can see the appeal of becoming an actress when you have a disability; the parallels are uncanny. I’ve already faced these prejudices, been judged and stereotyped and had my benefits and care cut so it should be an easy career path.
I was ready to take the world by storm with my acting, charm and perfect comedy timing but was the world ready to see me in all my HD glory?
I have vivid memories of wanting to become an actress, I loved drama at high school and even enrolled in two after-school drama clubs to feed my thirst for the spotlight. I knew I had a disability and that my life worked in a different way to my family and peers. However, I owned my disability like a badge of honour which really helped grow my ego and self confidence as a child – as I loved being the centre of attention, whether that be at school, at home, in hospital or simply going to the supermarket with my mum. This inner confidence allowed me to fully express myself and acting just helped me to flourish – I could be anyone I wanted to be when I was acting; a form of escapism perhaps?
My dreams were quickly squashed when I was around fifteen, as a drama teacher told me that my chances of success were slim, along with kids from multicultural backgrounds in my after-school drama club. Harsh words, but no matter how soul destroying they may have been, she wasn’t far off the truth. Back then representation of anyone who wasn’t white middle class and a male just didn’t happen and when it did, it wasn’t a true representation, rather a stereotypical version; fast forward to 2018 has the industry and society changed?
Sadly not as much as I would like! Yes there have been attempts of getting more diversity on our screens in past years and we can all agree the Paralympics brought disability into all of our hearts and minds – but the fact of the matter is disabled people are still significantly under-represented. Just 3% of employees across the five main broadcasters are ‘disabled’, compared to 18% of the population. How does this effect me as an actress? Well, it’s a constant battle – not only to get work but to be represented in an authentic way. Disabled actors are often given roles based around their disability rather than just writing them into scripts as a character, disability aside. We are given roles where we play, ‘the victim’, ‘unlucky in love’, ‘jobless’, ‘friendless’ and even in some cases not wanting to continue living because having a disability is just so terrible we all want to end it and not fight.
What happens when we do finally get our big break? We are subject to online trolls – another form of abuse. Even the great and now sadly late Dr Stephen Hawking, a prolific disabled public figure, couldn’t escape online abuse, whether that be in the form of a nasty meme or people’s ‘ablest’ attitudes stating that he can now be at peace in a better place after all his suffering. I have also been subject to online abuse which is something looking back I naively didn’t anticipate. So the question is, does online representation actually benefit how society views and treats those with disabilities, or does it just leave us vulnerable to more mistreatment?
I would argue that positive and authentic representations of people with disabilities and additional needs is helping to change how we see disability – I know that personally, attitudes (online trolling aside), have changed for the positive for me. I am now not just the lady in a wheelchair – I am the lady off the television and people seem to feel less awkward around me than they used to. Agreed, we have a long way to go to shape society and positive representation is only a start, though what I would say is that the disabled community need to make movement within their own social environments. For example, this includes going to the gym like Ability Bow, getting involved within the community, becoming an activist in their own right and showing the world what living with a disability actually means and more importantly there is nothing to be scared of. We are all but humans at the end of the day!