Sunday, February 25, 2018

Call for proposals for conference on Disability, Media, and Human Rights: Policy, Practice, Performance in Western Australia in April

Call for Proposals

Disability, Media, and Human Rights: Policy, Practice, Performance
19th 20th April 2018
CurtinUniversity (pictured)
Perth, Western Australia

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 8, affirms that the global disability community’s access to the media is a human right, as well as the way public attitudes towards people with disability are shaped. However, for people with disability, access to the media can be fraught with  technological road-blocks, is punctuated by a lack of functional and reflexive representations, and perpetuates clichés about the creativity and consciousness of people with disability.

This conference is an investigation of three nodes of intersection between disability and the media. We seek submissions for 20-minute individual papers, 45-minute panel presentations, creative artefacts, sonic sessions, interactive Q&A, workshops, seminars, or short screenings with discussion  that can be situated thematically within these three nodes:

Policy: Human rights, advocacy and access regarding media.
Practice: Making media as a person with a disability. Making media for people with disabilities.
Performance: Representations of disability in the media.

We want to explore how government, policy makers and advocacy groups can ensure equitable and just access for people with disabilities to the media landscape in all its avenues. We want to discuss this access as a human right. We want you to share your experiences as a media maker who may have a disability or who may make media with a disability consciousness. We want you to discuss the protocols and processes of how you create your art, the difficulties and triumphs of your experiences and how you think media can be a site for engagement with disability issues (or not). We want considered explorations of representations of people with disability in the media that critique the tragic/inspirational figure binary. Most of all, we are open to radical, disobedient, transgressive, and critical ways of exploring disability, the media and human rights.

Keynote speakers:
Beth Haller, Co-founder, Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) and author of Representing Disability in an Ableist World
Katie Ellis – Curtin University and author of Disability Media Work: Opportunities and Obstacles
Robyn Lambird – Blogger, model, YouTube celebrity, My Trex Life
Angel Dixon - Model, disability advocate, blogger, designer
Shawn Burns – Disability and media researcher and journalism lecturer at University of Wollongong

Please send your proposal to: on or before April 6, 2018. Please try to keep your written proposal to 500 words or less.

This conference is sponsored by Curtin University and the Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment,

Nyle DiMarco Opens Up About Having to Leave Black Panther Because Poor Captioning

From Teen Vogue:

In this op-ed by Nyle DiMarco, as told to Bobby Siebert, Nyle opens up about having to leave Black Panther, and the captioning systems that fail deaf people.

Last weekend, I set foot in a movie theater for the first time in five years. It was a worthwhile occasion: like more than half of America, I was itching to see Black Panther and its groundbreaking majority-black cast celebrating diversity on the big screen in a major blockbuster, led by Ryan Coogler.

After receiving my ticket at the box office, I typed in my phone and showed the screen to the ticket salesperson: "I am deaf, do you have a device for me?"

Moments later the salesperson emerged holding a black device called CaptiView. It had a circular base, a long spindly arm (not unlike one of Doctor Octopus' mechanical arms), and a rectangular head.

In my seat, I stuffed the circular base into the cupholder and grappled with the Doc Ock arm until I could see the little green letters inside the rectangular head. I could feel eyes darting towards me and the black box dangling in front of my face. The rectangular head started to dip sideways, too heavy for the Doc Ock arm. I tried to lift it back up, but the arm wouldn't keep upright. I had to slink into my seat so I could see the green letters again. By this time the lights had dimmed and we were minutes into Black Panther; I'd missed the introduction.

The captions worked fine for a while, and then I noticed something odd. The dialogue wasn't quite making sense. I studied the actors' mouths on screen and realized the device was lagging and skipping lines. Making matters worse, I noticed there were subtitles on the screen when the Wakandans spoke in their language. But my device was blocking the bottom portion of the screen and I had to lift myself up in my seat to see the foreign-language subtitles, and then quickly return to my slouch to catch the English dialogue on the CaptiView. Before long I had a major headache from my eyes refocusing constantly from the device inches from my face to the screen fifty feet away.

The device was a nuisance to use, embarrassing to have parked in front of my seat in a movie theater, and infuriatingly undependable. But it was the only way the theater offered for me, and millions other viewers like me, to access the movie. In other movie theaters, there are alternative devices, like these glasses, which are no easier to use, nor do they display captions more reliably.

It was a frustrating reminder why I had not gone to a movie theater in so long.

Back when I was growing up, some movie theaters would offer open captions. This meant the captions were right there on the screen. Though these open captioned showtimes were limited to selected days and times, when they did happen the experience was much more accessible and enjoyable. Some time ago movie theaters made the switch to these new captioning devices, and soon after that I stopped going.

As a deaf person, captions allow me to enjoy TV, movies, and entertainment. But myself and the 360 million other deaf people in the world aren't the only ones who benefit from captions. Captions can help movie viewing experiences for people with ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. It makes it easier for new language learners to understand dialogue. It also comes in handy in a ton of movie situations. When an actor mumbles, speaks in a heavy British accent, or is trying to make himself heard amidst a Michael Bay movie explosion scene, captions are there to make the dialogue crystal clear.

Unreliable captioning, or the lack thereof, isn't just a problem in movie theaters. Only a fraction of in-flight movies and TV shows have subtitles. Even though it's just a few remote clicks away, a ton of TVs in public spaces don't have the captioning turned on. The Internet brings a huge amount of filmed content to our screens, but so little of it is captioned. Recently, I tuned in to CNN’s Facebook page to watch the live-streamed town hall that Senator Marco Rubio hosted after the Parkland school shooting. I wanted to watch the essential dialogue between the students and members of the community so impacted by the tragedy and the Senator. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t captioned.

I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade from the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.

These instances aren’t just happening when your slightly odd film-lit professor assigns you an obscure foreign film for homework either. Some of the most massively popular entertainment in the U.S. is based primarily in foreign spoken languages. Dark, Altered Carbon, Narcos on Netflix are just a few examples. (Oh, I love Netflix, because its entire library of content has captions.)

Captioning enhances the viewing experience. It should be a standard part of any filmed media — not as an afterthought, but as a part of the ultimate golden standard of universal design.

There's tons of room to improve and we have to be vigilant, or what progress that has been made will be lost. Take the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's a landmark legislation that made many things possible for deaf people like me and the more than 55 million other people with disabilities. It's also a major reason why a lot of filmed content has any captioning at all. Just this week the House of Representatives passed a bill, HR620, that weakens the ADA. If it also passes the Senate, many of these hard-won civil rights could be dramatically reduced.

Ten minutes into Black Panther, I couldn't take it anymore. I had missed half the dialogue in the movie at that point and had a nagging headache. I walked out. When I explained my experience to the manager, they apologized and gave me two free tickets. For me to relive the indignity, perhaps.

I threw the tickets away. I'll wait until Black Panther is out on Blu-Ray.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Media dis&dat participates in February 17 #FilmDis Twitter chat on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Image description: The Rebecca character (a late 20s, brown-haired Caucasian woman) in a yellow floral sundress reads about her new diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She stands before a bulletin board with information about mental health conditions. Here's the music video about her diagnosis

#FilmDis Twitter Chat

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Saturday, February 17, 2018

6 pm Pacific / 9 pm Eastern

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a romantic musical comedy/drama on the CW network currently in its third season. Created by  Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, the show follows the main character, Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom), through some adventures in West Covina, California while exploring serious issues about mental health. Joining #FilmDis host Dominick Evans are superfans Beth Haller, professor, and media and disability scholar, and Alice Wong, Founder of the Disability Visibility Project®

How to Participate

Follow @dominickevans @mediadisdat and @DisVisibility during the chat. Dominick will be Tweeting the questions from his account.
Check out this explanation of how to participate in a Twitter chat by Ruti Regan:
Check out this captioned ASL explanation of how to participate in a chat by @behearddc


Welcome to the #FilmDis chat on #CrazyExGirlfriend and mental health. Joining @dominickevans today are guest hosts @mediadisdat and @DisVisibility. Spoiler alert: we will discuss current and past episodes of the show.
If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow this format: “A1 [your message] #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend”
Note: We will be discussing suicidal ideation, hospitalization, and other aspects mental health. Please practice self-care and mute if needed. For help: @800273TALK National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q1 What do you like about #CrazyExGirlfriend? Who/What are your favorite characters, songs, and storylines so far? #FilmDis
Q2 What are your thoughts on disability representation in #CrazyExGirlfriend, in particular those surrounding mental health? #FilmDis
Q3 With the title of the show and the season 3 theme song on being ‘crazy,’ what are some ways the show is reclaiming the word and challenging our ideas of people with mental health disabilities? #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q4 With the main character, Rebecca Bunch, we see her past and present experiences with hospitalization, medication, therapy, and other forms of mental health treatment. How does the show’s depiction of getting help resonate with you? #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q5 Earlier this season the character Rebecca Bunch attempted to end her life and was hospitalized. What was your reaction to her suicide attempt and recovery afterward? What did you appreciate about how the show handled this issue? #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q6 This season Rebecca Bunch received a new diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. What was your reaction to Rebecca’s diagnosis and what that means for her? #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q7 If you identify as a person with a psychiatric disability, what themes or issues would you like the show to explore in the future? #FilmDis #CrazyExGirlfriend
Q8 Any final thoughts you’d like to share about the characters, stories, songs, and themes from #CrazyExGirlfriend? #FilmDis

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Nationwide Class Action Challenges Hulu's Discrimination against Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

From the American Council of the Blind:

BOSTON, Nov. 20, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A coalition of blind and visually impaired individuals and advocacy groups filed a nationwide class action today against Hulu to end the video streaming company's ongoing exclusion of blind and visually impaired Americans.  The lawsuit—filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts—challenges Hulu's violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hulu, one of the largest online-streaming services in the country, offers thousands of shows and movies, including award-winning original content, to most customers at the click of a mouse.  However, the company fails to provide audio description—a separate audio track that blind and visually impaired people need in order to access the exclusively visual content of a show or movie—for any streaming videos. 

Because Hulu fails to include audio description tracks on any of its streaming content, blind and visually impaired individuals cannot independently enjoy Hulu's video streaming services.  Audio description is a separate audio track that, when activated, provides a verbal description of visual elements on screen, especially in scenes with no dialogue.  The audio description track plays between pauses in dialogue.  Hulu boasts an extensive library of live TV and on-demand movies and series—including its Emmy-award winning original series, "The Handmaid's Tale"—but currently excludes customers who are blind and visually impaired.

In addition, Hulu's website and applications are not accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals who use screen readers to navigate the internet.  A screen reader is software that converts the visually displayed content on the screen into audible, synthesized speech or outputs that information on a digital braille display.

The American Council of the Blind, Bay State Council of the Blind, and blind individuals brought this action to end Hulu's discriminatory business practices.  Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a national nonprofit legal center, and the Disability Law Center (DLC), Massachusetts's Protection and Advocacy system, represent these individuals and organizations.

Kim Charlson, President of the American Council of the Blind, said, "Movies and television are pillars of American culture.  As delivery of such media transitions to video streaming services, it is critical that these platforms be accessible in order to ensure the inclusion of blind and visually impaired individuals in contemporary society."

Rebecca Williford, Senior Staff Attorney at DRA, said, "Hulu is owned by a collection of some of the most powerful companies in the entertainment business and is itself one of the nation's most popular online streaming services.  Its utter failure to provide access to individuals who are blind and visually impaired is astonishing."

"BSCB members have been expressing their concerns about Hulu's lack of audio description for years now," said Brian Charlson, President of Bay State Council of the Blind, "and it is time that Hulu join with other industry streaming services out there and meet its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

"As forms of entertainment evolve, equal access must transition to meet industry innovation. Equal access means the ability to fully use and enjoy all aspects of entertainment, just like everyone else," said Christine Griffin, Executive Director of DLC.

Plaintiffs do not seek monetary damages, but seek only to achieve equal access to Hulu's services.

A copy of this press release and the Complaint can be found at nationwide-class-action-challenges-hulus-discrimination-blind-visually-impaired-individuals/

About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): Founded in 1993, DRA is a leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. DRA's prior cases advocating for accessible entertainment include Blanks v. AMC Theaters (2017) (reaching a settlement to improve audio description in AMC theaters nationwide), and negotiations with Netflix in 2016 that resulted in a settlement to provide audio description for Netflix's streaming and disc rental libraries, including "Netflix Originals." For more information, visit

About Disability Law Center (DLC): The DLC is the Protection and Advocacy system for Massachusetts and is authorized under federal law to protect and advocate for the legal rights of individuals with disabilities in Massachusetts. DLC worked with Bay State Council of the Blind in a series of negotiations with Fleet Bank, Sovereign Bank, and Citizens Bank to ensure that their ATMs, websites, and other banking services were fully accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. For more information, visit

About American Council of the Blind (ACB): ACB works to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and quality of life, for all people who are blind or visually impaired. ACB advocates for policies that provide services, opportunities, infrastructure, and equipment that are necessary for an inclusive society, in federal, state, and local governments, and among service providers and industry. For more information, visit

About Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB): BSCB is a membership organization of blind, visually impaired, and sighted individuals committed to an enhanced quality of life for Massachusetts' residents who are blind or visually impaired. BSCB convenes meetings and conferences, organizes recreation activities, provides publications, radio programs, and information, and advocates for services and legislation that improve access for people who are blind. For more information, visit

Friday, November 10, 2017

ABC's SPEECHLESS named 2017 recipient of Annie Glenn Award by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

From ASHA:

The ABC Television Network series SPEECHLESS will be honored with the Annie Glenn Award for 2017 by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Named for Annie Glenn, advocate and wife of astronaut John Glenn, the award honors those who have made a positive impact on the lives of people with communication disorders. "Speechless" is produced for ABC by Twentieth Century Fox Television.
Mrs. Glenn, who experienced a severe stutter well into her adult years, has worked tirelessly for roughly 40 years as a champion for people with speech, language, and hearing disorders.
"Speechless" is the trailblazing ABC family comedy that centers on a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, and his dysfunctional, yet lovable, family. The character, JJ DiMeo, is nonverbal and uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate. The actor who portrays him, Micah Fowler, also has cerebral palsy.
The show's creator, Scott Silveri, grew up with a brother with cerebral palsy who was nonverbal. The show is one of very few in the history of television to feature a character with a disability in a lead role. Among them, "Speechless" is especially unique in that it is a comedy.
Reflecting on the show's impact, Mrs. Glenn noted, "It really is remarkable that a show like [Speechless] is on TV these days. Years ago, an individual with a disability would never have been a lead character in such a funny show. Think about how many people now understand that people who use different ways to communicate are the same as you and me. And that TV family is just as silly as your own family. I think that gives a lot of hope to families out there dealing with some struggles and trying to figure out their next steps. Nothing is bigger than the family working together."
"We at 'Speechless' are honored and deeply gratified to be this year's recipient of ASHA's Annie Award," said "Speechless" creator/executive producer Scott Silveri. "'Speechless' is a show about communication: between parents and their kids, between brothers and sisters... but on a more literal level, between one non-verbal young man and the world around him as he strives to find what each of us wants-a way to be heard.
Immersing ourselves as we have in the world of speech and alternative communication has been a revelation for our writers, cast and crew-one that has changed every one of us. But we do our work in a world of make-believe. As such we are humbled to be recognized by ASHA, a body of pioneers and tireless advocates who offer real-world solutions. We celebrate ASHA for the work they do, and thank them for this generous recognition. We will continue to strive to tell stories that are worthy of this honor," Silveri continued.
"We are thrilled to recognize the show 'Speechless' with our 2017 Annie Award," said Gail Richard, PhD, CCC-SLP, 2017 ASHA President. "As a prime-time comedy on a major television network, 'Speechless' has a tremendous platform to raise awareness and understanding of people who communicate in a manner that is different from the norm. We hope its success will encourage the inclusion of more characters and stories in the media and entertainment industries that showcase the unique experiences and capabilities of people with communication and related disorders."
The award will be presented to "Speechless" actors Micah Fowler and Cedric Yarbrough at an evening ceremony on Friday, November 10, 2017, at the ASHA Annual Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The presentation of this prestigious award is an annual and well-received highlight of the professional conference, which regularly draws approximately 15,000 attendees-largely audiologists and speech-language pathologists.
First awarded in 1987, past recipients of the "Annie" include Vice President Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, Julie Andrews, Jane Seymour, Bob and Lee Woodruff, Bill and Willie Geist, and "The King's Speech" screenwriter David Seidler.
About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 191,500 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists identify, assess, and treat speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders.

Scotland plans to integrate sign language into everyday life

From the BBC:
The Scottish government has announced plans to integrate the use of British Sign Language (BSL) into everyday life.
Measures include removing barriers to deaf people becoming teachers and enabling more pupils to learn BSL in school.
It will also address "equal access" to employment opportunities including apprenticeships and internships.
The government will give £1.3m to a partnership of hearing loss charities over the next three years.

What's in the plan?

The national plan for people with hearing loss is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.
It has 70 actions ministers will take by 2020 to help deaf people in Scotland, including:
  • Removing barriers that prevent deaf people from becoming teachers
  • Developing Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) awards in BSL
  • Allowing more pupils to learn BSL in school
  • Guaranteeing government-funded employment schemes are accessible to deaf people
  • Improving ways of giving information in BSL at train stations and airports
  • Starting a steering group to help colleges and universities help deaf students
Delia Henry, director of Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, said the plan was a "starting point" in removing barriers for the 13,000 people who use BSL in Scotland.
She said people with hearing loss "often tell us about their communication needs not being met as BSL interpreters have not been provided when they've been looking for support at job centres or during health appointments".
Dr Terry Riley, chairman of the British Deaf Association, said the plan set "a brilliant example for the rest of the United Kingdom to follow".
He added: "Scotland's approach to promoting and supporting BSL has been highlighted as exemplary by the United Nations, and the Scottish government is to be congratulated."
Presentational grey line

Can deaf people be teachers?

The plan includes specific mention of making it easier for BSL users to become teachers.
There are no laws preventing deaf people becoming teachers, however, only a few currently work in Scotland.
Generally they use a BSL interpreter in the classroom to help them communicate with pupils.
Janis McDonald, chief officer at the Scottish Council on Deafness, said the problem was about access to good-quality education and qualifications.
She said deaf teachers were generally people who became deaf later in life rather than those who were born deaf and had BSL as their first language.
"Someone who only speaks BSL wouldn't be able to pass a teaching exam because it would be delivered in English," she said. "This means they can't get a teaching qualification.
"It's difficult to access further education when the reasonable adjustments are seen as costly or unreasonable.
"People should be able to be qualified in their own language."
Presentational grey line

'They have dreams'

Derek Todd is from the Scottish Council on Deafness and supported the work of the ministerial advisory group which prepared the National Plan.
He told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that overcoming the language barrier would lead to more inclusion for deaf people, especially in education.
He said: "We try to encourage more people to learn BSL in schools and more hearing children to learn BSL to engage and socialise with deaf children.
"Deaf children can do anything, they have dreams. Education is one of the critical barriers for deaf children.
"Many deaf children leave school with no education or very little qualifications. We want to improve that with this National Plan."
Early Years Minister Mark McDonald outlined the details of the plan to the Scottish Parliament.
He said: "Our long-term aim is ambitious - we want to bring about change that has a real, practical impact on the day-to-day lives of BSL users and which puts Scotland right up there as the best place in the world for BSL users to live and visit.
"This plan, which has been developed in partnership with the BSL National Advisory Group, reflects the priorities of deaf and deafblind BSL users in Scotland and I am confident that it will help us to make substantial progress towards achieving that ambition."

The world really is a stage, scripts and all, to autistic actor

From The NY Times
SYRACUSE — Early Thursday morning at the cafe across the street from Syracuse Stage, an actor named Mickey Rowe (pictured) ducked in from the drizzly chill just as a barista unlocked the door. Starring as Christopher Boone in Simon Stephens’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” he had a matinee to perform in a couple of hours, and an interview to give first.
On Broadway, where the play was a Tony Award-winning hit, it ran eight times a week, with two actors alternating the demanding role of Christopher, a 15-year-old with autism who sets out to solve a mystery. In Syracuse, Mr. Rowe — thought to be the first openly autistic actor to play the role — does all nine shows a week.
For him, such arduous work is a point of pride: evidence that an actor with a developmental disability can be up to the task. Confident enough in his performance to send a tweet to a writer for The New York Times, asking her to come and see (it worked), he means to show what’s possible when companies take a chance on actors like him — and by extension, what’s possible in the wider culture when other employers do.
He doesn’t argue that roles like Christopher need to be played by people on the autism spectrum, but simply that those actors must be given a shot.
“I think it’s theater’s job to change the world,” Mr. Rowe said over coffee. “I think it has a lot more power than it knows it has. And with that power comes great responsibility.”
A boyish 29-year-old Seattle native with the slight but toned build of a gymnast, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand when we met. On our table, he placed a sheaf of papers face down — scripted notes it made him feel better to have, which he consulted if I asked a question he wanted to be careful answering. His vocal tone, timid at first, soon had the resonance of an actor’s voice.
“This is easy-ish for me because you’re a reporter; I’m the interviewee,” he said when we’d been talking awhile. “We have specific roles. If we met on the street, that would be more scary.”
That’s how he’s felt about performing, too, ever since he was little: perfectly comfortable as long as he knows the part he’s meant to play.
Whether Mr. Rowe is the first autistic actor to play Christopher is hard to pin down, given the number of “Curious Incident” productions around the world. Even Mr. Stephens, the playwright, said that while Mr. Rowe is the first he’s heard of, he can’t be sure.
Mr. Rowe with a “Curious Incident” co-star, Elizabeth Ledo. CreditMichael Davis
Casting Mr. Rowe was the result of a deliberate effort by two professional regional theaters, Syracuse Stage and its co-producer, Indiana Repertory Theater (where the show opened this fall), to audition actors both with and without autism for the role. At a time when theaters are discussing diversity, there is a heightened pressure to include performers with disabilities. “Uncommon Sense,” Tectonic Theater Project’s new Off Broadway play about people with autism and their families, has an actor on the spectrum, Andrew Duff, in its ensemble.
Robert Hupp, the artistic director of Syracuse Stage, said that seeking out actors on the spectrum “made logical and irrefutable sense” for “Curious Incident.” To him, Mr. Rowe’s performance is clear validation.
“To anyone who ever had any concerns or doubts or wondered, ‘Could an actor with autism play this role? Would an actor who falls on the spectrum be overwhelmed by this production?’ the answer is definitively no,” he said. “Not if you’re Mickey Rowe.”
Mr. Rowe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from the University of Washington, found out when he was a senior there that he had autism. Legally blind, he struggles to read print smaller than 18-point type (he wears contacts onstage and glasses “in real life,” he says), and was in special education classes for his vision throughout childhood — years he spent friendless, obsessed with magic tricks and circus skills: stilt-walking, juggling, unicycling.
It strikes him as telling that he got speech and occupational therapy, too. He suspects his parents knew he had autism but didn’t want to label him, and if so, he understands. He hasn’t asked them, though; he said they don’t have that kind of relationship.
It was his girlfriend — now his wife and the mother of their two small children — who urged him to get help with issues like interpreting social cues. At the university’s Adult Autism Clinic, his diagnosis came as “a big relief, because you know your whole life that something is different,” Mr. Rowe said. “You don’t know why or what it is or if you’re stupid or what’s going on.”
Still, he didn’t tell people about his autism. So it was unsettling when, in an acting class he took around the time “Curious Incident” opened on Broadway in 2014, the teacher handed him one of Christopher’s speeches and said, “You need to do this monologue. This is you.”
“I remember thinking to myself afterwards: Does she know I’m on the spectrum?” Mr. Rowe said. “Like, do people just know?”
He is not Christopher, though, and he and Christopher occupy very different spots on the spectrum. Even so, he recognized enough pieces of himself in that monologue that he went home and listened to the novel, by Mark Haddon, that Mr. Stephens adapted into the play.
Mr. Rowe and other cast members after a performance. CreditShane Lavalette for The New York Times
Not long afterward, struggling to get work, Mr. Rowe threw in the towel on trying to pass as neurotypical. In an essay on the theater industry website HowlRound, he wrote about being an actor with autism, noting the “tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor.” He hoped his disclosure would change the way people looked at him, just enough to give him a chance.
The piece raised his profile and put him on the radar of anyone searching for an actor with autism, but in practice nothing changed. Going out for roles, he still faced immediate roadblocks: the small talk, the eye contact, the instant connection an actor is supposed to make with the director.
“Just how you walk into the room and shake hands with the person when you first meet them is a huge part of the audition, and people on the spectrum aren’t very good at that,” he said.
So his résumé was comparatively slender when the Indiana/Syracuse production asked him to submit a video audition. Soon the show’s California-based director, Risa Brainin, flew to Seattle to see if he had the chops. If he didn’t, they weren’t going to compromise.
“We couldn’t,” she said. “It’s too major of a role, and too difficult of a role. What we wanted to do was give the opportunity.”
In Syracuse, where the production runs through Nov. 12, Mr. Rowe plays Christopher with an agile grace, an impish humor and a humanizing restraint that seems directly connected to his experience of autism. When the stage directions say that Christopher barks like a dog, for example, Mr. Rowe chooses to underplay it.
The attention the show has gotten has been positive for him. For one thing, Lincoln Center asked him to speak at its autism-focused Big Umbrella Festival next spring. And the ripples extend farther. Marissa Wolf, who is directing “Curious Incident” this winter at Kansas City Repertory Theater, in Missouri, said Mr. Rowe’s casting inspired her to choose an actor with Tourette’s syndrome, a condition often associated with autism spectrum disorder, to play Christopher in her production.
Mr. Rowe worries a little about being pigeonholed, because he also wants to play roles that have nothing to do with autism. At the same time, he sees characters in the canon who he thinks could be on the spectrum — like Bobby, the young misfit in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” and Jason, the awkward adolescent in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”
Eager to work with Mr. Rowe again, Mr. Hupp and Ms. Brainin have been scheming about future projects, pondering which roles — maybe something in Shakespeare? — would be a great fit for him.
What Mr. Rowe wants is a life in the American theater, probably with a stint in graduate school on the way. He can envision himself as the leader of a regional theater, and he is undaunted by the socializing that would require. Mingling may not be in his skill set, but to him, an artistic director is simply playing a role. And knowing that takes the fear away.