Intellectually disabled actors “start training at birth to be actors,” according to Gail Williamson, a Hollywood talent agent and mother of Blair, an actor with Down syndrome.
What are intellectual disabilities?
On July 25, 2003, as part of the annual celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation was renamed the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities through an Executive Order. The name change was made to reflect a more human-focused approach. It was a first step for communities to begin seeing people with intellectual disabilities in a new light. In 2004, Special Olympics also updated its official terminology from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disabilities” – previously the term mental retardation was used throughout the Special Olympics movement because of its specific meaning in clinical and academic settings.
In 2007, EIC began its partnership with Special Olympics to introduce the issue of intellectual disabilities in entertainment industry. In this section you will find Picture This: Intellectual Disabilities, a booklet written specifically for the entertainment industry. It contains fact-based information, statistics and definitions relating to ID and personal stories about those who live with it. It also profiles ID activist and Special Olympics supporter Vanessa Williams whose award-winning role in the feature film My Brother benefited from her work with Special Olympics.
Williams explained that young people with intellectual disabilities often are taught to “act normal” in public situations, and find ways to repress their real personalities when away from family and close friends. She says that because so many people with intellectual disabilities are used to effectively becoming different people in different situations, these behaviors contribute to relating to a fictional character and their portrayals of characters.
“It is doable,” said Vanessa Williams, talking about employing intellectually disabled actors to play in television and movies. “There are many professional actors who live with intellectual disabilities, and using them in any production doesn’t add anything to production time or cost – most people think the opposite is true.” (Read more in Picture This: Intellectual Disabilities, which you can download here .)
EIC has experts on board from Special Olympics and other major national leaders in the field of ID to notice if you have questions about how to treat ID in your depictions. If you’re not sure how to depict something, give EIC’s First Draft service a call at (818) 861-7782 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org  and we will hook you up with the best nationally recognized expert to answer your questions or, if you’d like, we can bring the experts to you for a one-on-one or group briefing for your production team.