TORONTO — As the first disabled person in Canada to produce a broadcast docu-series, Michelle Asgarali is making history with her new show “Breaking Character.” In fact, that was the whole point.
The 10-part documentary series, which premiered last month on AMI-tv –a non-profit media company representing Canadians with disabilities – captures the journey of six performers with disabilities.
Functioning much like a reality show, it sees each of them go about their daily routines while chronicling their successes and struggles with making it to the stage, whether that be in a comedy club or a local theatre.
It comes at a time when, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability and the most recent national statistics available, more than six million Canadians aged 15 and over — 22 per cent of the population — identify as having a disability. Meanwhile, characters with disabilities make up only 2.8 per cent of who we see on screen, according to a 2022 GLAAD report.
Asgarali says she had been following a rising discourse surrounding the lack of disability representation in the U.S., and asked herself: “Well, what’s happening in Canada?”
The question led to the concept for “Breaking Character” —a title that is both a reference to stepping out of character and to subverting expectations about the capabilities of performers with disabilities.
Asgarali, who has faced barriers to success in the industry because of her disabilities, says the focus became about humanizing people with disabilities, an antithesis to tokenism, which is often how characters with disabilities are included in film and television.
On set, accessibility was prioritized on every front, from Asgarali being able to work safely regardless of the day’s shoot location, to the use of described video, which accommodates the needs of blind and partially sighted viewers.
The series also breaks the assumption that there are few mainstream performers with disabilities working today. In fact, Day 1of a casting call saw 20 people drop by, sharing “so many great stories.”
Thunder Bay’s Rachel Romu, a model, musician and activist living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was one of them.
“Being pretty visible in able-centric spaces, I recognize how often telling disabled stories can accidentally be voyeuristic or focused on being inspiring,” says Romu, the first runway model to use a mobility aid at Toronto Fashion Week in 2018.
“(But) seeing Michelle in the casting room … I was immediately guard-dropped and relieved that there would be disability-led storytelling instead of me playing educator to everyone on set while also trying to share my story.”
Working with others with disabilities meant there was a refreshing “shorthand,” says Romu, which made it easier to disclose any need.
“I want people to be thoughtful and accommodating across the board, because not every disability is visible and everyone’s situation can wax and wane depending on the circumstances.”
Asgarali says she believes change is coming, specifically when it comes to acknowledging “cripping up,” which is when able-bodied actors play characters with disabilities and mimic impairments.
Even with more series and films centering the experiences of characters with disabilities than ever before, 95 per cent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors, according to a 2021 study by Nielsen and non-profit RespectAbility.
“Once you’re putting on a disability and you’re taking it off, people don’t see a person anymore, they see the disability,” she says.
“So if you are playing a person with ALS or with muscular dystrophy and you’re in a power chair, and you do this brilliant job and everybody loves it, and you win an Oscar for it, you’re playing out and reinforcing dangerous tropes.”
Those typically include three narratives: the person with disabilities who is “cured,” the one who is killed off, and the one who is institutionalized.
Asgarali explains, “By playing that character, you’re continuing those tropes in real life.
“And then there’s an expectation that that’s what disabled people’s lives are like, that we dream of being cured. I love my life, I do not want a cure.”
The path forward, she says, is having more disability-led productions like “Breaking Character,” where people with disabilities are involved every step of the way, from writing to directing to acting.
She also points to the Netflix series “Special,” which wrapped in 2021 after two seasons, for the way it centres a man with cerebral palsy, who is played by Ryan O’Connell. It’s his involvement that she says is essential, as he not only led the show as a performer, but as creator, writer and producer.
Asgarali also hopes to see more production mandates that include, for example, quotas when it comes to who is working in front of and behind the screen.
Yin Brown, a Toronto-based disability rights advocate, says the screen has been slow when it comes to disability representation not only due to the assumption that people with disabilities are not capable, but that viewers want to see “pretty and healthy” people, not “someone struggling.”
“Oftentimes, when studios speak of diversity, they are referring to gender or race,” she says.
“It’s about education; there needs to be an understanding that when you talk about diversity representation, people with disabilities are part of the equation.”
While Brown sees “Breaking Character” as a sign of change, she also notes that AMI is a network with a limited audience, and films like “CODA,” which follows a deaf family and won this year’s best picture Oscar, tend to be “the occasional feel-good project.”
Progress is ahead. In April, in partnership with the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada, AMI announced the launch of the Disability Screen Office, which will provide services to raise levels of representation, eliminate accessibility barriers and amplify the creative voices of Canadians with disabilities.
It’s a promise of a future Asgarali says is long overdue for the disabled community, who will have more opportunities to show that they can indeed work and any challenge can indeed be met.
“As cheesy as it sounds, we can ramp that gap. … I don’t want to be the only person, I want to have competition, I want every one of us to one day have too many choices.”