Is ‘Cripping up’ OK?

By William Sangster

With the rise of disability actors and representation on screen, Should able-bodied actors still be allowed to take on disability roles usually known as “Cripping up”

Is ‘Cripping up’ OK?

Why, in an age when `blacking-up’ is greeted with outrage, is `cripping up’ greeted with awards?

For those that don’t know, `cripping up’ is when an able-bodied actor takes on the role of a disabled character and mimics the physical characteristics of a medical impairment or intellectual disability.

We all love a good story and nothing beats a bit of triumph over adversity - especially when the lead character has a physical or intellectual disability. 

But is `cripping up’ really OK?

In the 1990 film MY LEFT FOOT, Daniel Day-Lewis received rave reviews and won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Christy Brown - an Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy. Here’s a link to the trailer.

MY LEFT FOOT - Trailer

Tom Cruise received his first Oscar nomination for playing paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone's 1989 drama "Born on the Fourth of July."

 Born on the Fourth of July - Trailer

Then there’s `RAINMAN’. Dustin Hoffman played received huge acclaim for his portrayal of an autistic savant.

 RAINMAN - Trailer

Other popular examples are …

  •  Kevin McHale played paraplegic high school student Artie Abrams on Fox's "Glee."
  • James McAvoy and Steven Robertson as Rory O'Shea and Steven Robertson, who suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, respectively, in 2004's "Rory O'Shea Was Here."
  • Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paralyzed marine in James Cameron's 2009 3D blockbuster, "Avatar."
  • Legendary soul musician Ray Charles is portrayed by Jamie Foxx in this Oscar-winning biopic.
  • Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier in the "X-Men" franchise
  • The Theory of Everything is a 2014 biographical romantic drama film, where Eddie Redmayne, played Stephen Hawking

Social justice issues such as gender, ethnicity and sexuality are openly debated in our society, but disabled rights and disability rights are much less talked about.

The 2021 Hollywood blockbuster, CODA, helped raise awareness and put the spotlight on the issue. For those not in the know, CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) is an English-language remake of the 2014 French-Belgian film La Famille Bellier. Emilia Jones was the child of deaf adults. Troy Kotsur played the role of her father and won an Oscar for Best Supporting actor -  the first deaf man to do so! 

 CODA - Trailer

In the U.S. one in four people (26 percent) have a disability and yet only 3.1 percent of characters on-screen are disabled.  


There’s no denying that able-bodied actors are extremely skilled and take a huge amount of pride in their work. One can only imagine the hours and hours of practice that goes into nailing a role. But is it necessary when there are disabled actors looking for work?

Television and film are both guilty of being slow to abandon `cripping up’. It would be easy to pass out some brickbats, but I’m going to hand out some bouquets.

The first one goes to Marvel Cinematic Universe for ETERNALS and the introduction of a deaf superhero. Lauren Ridlof, who was born deaf, played Makkari in the film. 

MCU get a second bouquet for the return of Alaqua Cox in ECHO. Viewers first met her in Marvel Studios HAWKEYE. Alaqua, a deaf actor, plays the role of a deaf Cheyenne woman who has the ability to imitate other people’s movements.


In New Zealand, we started to see a shift toward disability representation  - when Whanganui teen Libby Hunsdale's became the first lead actor in a feature film to play a woman with Down Syndrome in POPPY.

Thumbs up also to SHORTLAND STREET for casting Jacob Dombroski. Jacob played the role of Winston and became the first actor with Down syndrome to feature in our longest-running Soap opera.

But let's be honest these are baby steps - we have a lot of catching up to do.

There are plenty of arguments for casting able-bodied actors. In some cases, you could argue it is a necessity, but there’s no excuse NOT to broaden access where it’s reasonable.

Able-bodied actors aren’t automatically better than their disabled counterparts. There’s no denying that disabled actors are capable of bringing insight and a deeper understanding of disability roles.

If we truly want to make a change we need more intentional and unintentional roles for disability actors. We need more characters who just so happen to have a disability.

Personally, I don’t believe `cripping up’ should be abolished. It’s horses for courses. There are arguments for and against - depending on the case.  However, as a man with acting aspirations - who just so happens to have cerebral palsy - I welcome change. 

There’s only one thing worse than hope and that’s no hope!

And, as Hollywood has taught us, the good guy always wins!