'It is cripping up': Disabled community slams casting of able-bodied 'Stranger Things' star as 'The Elephant Man' lead

Charlie Heaton’s casting as Joseph Merrick is under fire because the actor is able-bodied. (Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images)

The BBC is being accused of ableism after casting Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton to play Joseph Merrick in its upcoming adaptation of The Elephant Man.

Merrick — who had severe facial and body disfigurements thought to be a result of Proteus syndrome — died in 1890 at age 27. Though the Londoner has previously been portrayed by able-bodied actors like John Hurt and Bradley Cooper, Heaton’s casting has been called “disappointing” by Scope, a British charity for disability equality, because he himself is not disabled.

“It’s disappointing that a disabled actor has not been cast in the remake of The Elephant Man, as it’s one of the most recognizable films to portray a disabled character,” Phil Talbot, Scope’s head of communications, told the Guardian.

“This is a missed opportunity but sadly, a lack of diversity in the industry is nothing new,” Talbot continued. “Disabled actors still often face huge barriers to break into the business. Not only are the roles few and far between, but castings and locations are often not accessible. There is a massive pool of disabled talent being overlooked.”

John Hurt played Merrick in the 1980 David Lynch film The Elephant Man. (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Disabled actors have also criticized the casting of Heaton, who plays Jonathan Byers on Netflix’s Stranger Things. Actress Lisa Hammond, who has a restricted growth condition and uses a wheelchair, was among the first to call out the issue on social media, tweeting that it was “unlikely” that disabled actors were considered for the lead role of Merrick.

Under the Skin actor Adam Pearson, who has the N1 (neurofibromatosis type 1) condition which was once thought to affect Merrick, compared the casting to a white actor using blackface for a role.

“To get a non-disabled actor to tell the story of a historical disabled figure is outrageous,” Pearson told the Telegraph. “It is the only minority where this would be acceptable.

“It is ‘cripping up.’ If it was someone blacking up there would be uproar.”

The BBC, which is expected to air the drama in 2019, responded with a statement insisting that it will cast disabled actors in “key roles” alongside Heaton.

The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability and we are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles,” the network said. 

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