CW Star: PWDs Deserve to “See Themselves Fully” in Characters
Austin Basis reflects on the lack of disability and chronic illness in the film industry.
“Disabilities are the last frontier.” This is the opinion of Austin Basis, a Hollywood actor with Type 1 diabetes, who is working on a comic series featuring superheroes with disabilities and chronic illness, including Type 1 diabetes. From his perspective, the movie-making industry has only partially responded to the public’s appetite for increased diversity by involving more individuals from historically underrepresented groups onscreen and behind the scenes. Slowly but surely, more women, persons of color, and members of other marginalized communities are being represented within the industry, he says; yet individuals living with disability or chronic illness are still largely invisible.
Basis is neither the first nor the only person in the industry to make this argument. This month, a columnist in The Hollywood Reporter called upon the film industry to take seriously its promise to reflect a diverse society and to challenge stereotypes by giving disability more representation. “People with disabilities make up 20 percent of the population,” writes Delbert Whetter, “but appear on screen only 2.7 percent of the time.” This is not because Hollywood is lacking for talent among this community; it is simply because the industry does not create roles for these individuals.
Basis suggests another reason for the lack of representation: filmmakers go out of their way to avoid portraying illness and disability on screen when actors present a condition. He claims that he has tried over the years to portray his Type 1 diabetes in his various roles: “I’m Type 1 until they tell me otherwise.” Invariably, he is “told otherwise.”
The actor recalls an incident during the filming of the CW show, Beauty and the Beast, for which he is best known. When filmmakers noticed his insulin pump on his arm, they stopped production and asked him to remove or conceal it. Basis explained to them that doing so would require him to go back to his trailer to change the infusion site, a process that could take ten to fifteen minutes. He figured this detail would dissuade them, since filmmakers usually have little patience for delays. They agreed to wait.
He protested, suggesting that the presence of the pump added dimension to his character and to the scene. The filmmakers didn’t bite.
It may seem ironic that a show that thematizes physical differences insists upon able-bodied characters. But such is the norm in Hollywood, according to Basis. This is a real shame, because it means that viewers like him (those living with Type 1 diabetes) do not get to “see themselves fully in a character.”
This is one reason why Basis has turned to writing – he is tired of having to conceal his condition. One of the characters in his series, The KINETIX , is based on him. “Cyabetes” is a jock with Type 1 diabetes, whose insulin pump electrifies his body, transforming him into an evil-fighting cyborg. Through this character, Basis challenges existing stereotypes about the condition. Too often, Type 1 diabetes and other conditions are perceived to weaken individuals. But, in fact, illness and disability can bring out hidden strengths, such as discipline and determination. Basis says this is true of his own life. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without diabetes.”
The series, which is a collaboration between Basis and creative partners Dave Maulbeck and Josh Taub, sends a message from one person living with a chronic condition to others: “what makes us different, makes us special.” Basis hopes that this message reaches youth, who may be discouraged by what they hear from the media and other medical experts. When he was a child, he attended conferences and events about Type 1 diabetes, where he would hear “a lot of negatives.”
He admits that there is a practical reason for this emphasis on the negative outcomes of disease: leaders and policymakers need to be moved to act. Think, for instance, of the testimonies of Children’s Congress representatives, says Basis. These adolescents have to recount their struggles in order to motivate lawmakers to act on their behalf. But for kids attending these events, it is easy to become discouraged. His series offers these adolescents more positive messaging.
When asked about the comic’s stylistic influences, Basis cited Beevis and Butthead and King of the Hill. Like these works, there is a “rawness to the art.” This visual style seemed suited to the narrative, which exposes different characters’ vulnerabilities.
Basis says The KINETIX allows him to scratch the creative itch that many actors have. It is not the only creative project that he has in the works. The actor is also writing a short film about his processing of the #MeToo movement as a white male. He hopes to submit the film to the festival circuit next year. He is also continuing to make guest appearances. Basis recently filmed an episode of the FOX show Lucifer, and he will soon make a guest appearance on CBS’s Scorpion.
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