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Disability in a galaxy far, far, away…

December 9, 2016

There is a long tradition of blind martial artists throughout history and folklore. In fact, some practitioners of combat arts train blind folded in order to improve their reflexes and self-awareness. It seems that the tradition of the blind warrior has reached a galaxy far, far away. In Disney’s latest blockbuster, the eagerly anticipated Rogue One, we are to be treated to a blind, force sensitive monk, played by the Hong Kong born actor, Donnie Yen.

With the franchise reaching out to a wider audience, its creative helmswoman, Kathleen Kennedy is actively seeking to widen the diversity of the characters we see on our screens. At first glance the inclusion of a blind character seems a welcome and positive addition. However, during a panel hosted by Twitter, Donnie Yen spoke of the difficulties he faced in shooting the film. This was put down largely to the contact lenses he wore. He said that the fighting was Ok, but it was difficult to connect with the other actors. All fair enough so far. But, he then went on to say that he didn’t want to look like a robotic blind guy.

This is when we meet a minor problem. Some may consider his comments offensive, others may consider them simply ill advised. But my personal issues are with casting. Surely diversity goes further than character and plot, race and gender. Surely for diversity to really work it has to encompass the cast too. That means employing a blind actor to play a blind character. Is a sighted person wearing lenses to “look blind” any different to a white person “blackening-up” to play a black character? Or an able bodied actor sitting in a wheelchair to play a character who can’t walk?

As someone who is blind, and as someone who has both acted and has many years of martial arts experience under my belt (pick a colour!) surely with the vast budget, resources and reach Star Wars enjoys, they could have sought out a blind actor to play the role. There are many blind actors and a number of blind martial artists. Given enough time and training I’m sure one of them could put in a convincing performance.

We have to ask ourselves what is more important, having an amazing martial artist who is fully sighted, playing a blind man, fearing he’ll look like a robotic blind guy, or a blind guy, being authentic and genuine, playing a blind warrior. I know what I’d rather see.

It seems that diversity applies to race and sex, but not impairment. If a blind person had been casted, this would have been a wonderful boon, both for disability rights and the Star Wars franchise, one that I love. After all, Star Wars has a long an honourable tradition of introducing unknown or inexperienced actors to the world. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they had used this opportunity to give a role to a blind actor.

May the force be with you.

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