Zack Gottsagen made history at this year’s Academy Awards as the first person with Down syndrome to be a presenter at the ceremony. It got us thinking of other recent wins for inclusion and representation of actors with disabilities. Check out three projects that made our list, including the 2019 film in which Gottsagen starred opposite his co-presenter at the Oscars, Shia LaBeouf.
The film stars Gottsagen as Zak, a man who wants to be a pro-wrestler and escapes his care home to pursue his dreams. During a Deadline panel, writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz explained how Gottsagen inspired the character of Zak. Nilson shared that they’d been volunteering at a camp in Venice, California when they first met Gottsagen. They learned that he’d studied acting and wanted to be in a feature film. Nilson recalled that they wanted to give the talented actor his shot because “he’s got the comedic timing and chops.” In an interview with Variety, Schwartz addressed a pivotal scene in the film in which Zak saves his friend Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), shifting the narrative. “I think it was really important for us [Nilson, Schwartz and Gottsagen] to have Zak as a three-dimensional character and his own hero within the story,” said Schwartz. During an appearance on Good Morning America, Gottsagen was asked how he felt about the movie. The actor responded with his feelings on it and also shared his passion, stating, “I hope I can change the world.”
The new ABC series centers on Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders), a former Marine who discovers her knack for private investigation. Cole Sibus, who has Down syndrome, landed the recurring role of playing Dex’s brother Ansel. Sibus got his start in front of the camera with the A&E docuseries Born This Way and went on to play Arrow in the 2018 drama Spare Room. The actor is also a long-time Special Olympics Southern California athlete, and in an interview with the organization, Sibus shared how he felt about his latest role: “Stumptown focuses on what I can do, not what I can’t do. The role is about Ansel’s heart and personality, not his disability,” said Sibus.
The new Freeform series follows a man in his 20s who takes on the role of caregiver for his two half-sisters after their father’s untimely death. Kayla Cromer plays his half-sister Matilda and shared during a Freeform press event last year that like her character, she is on the autism spectrum. In an interview with Bustle, the actor explained that when projects cast neurotypical actors to play autistic characters, it sends the message that actors with autism don’t exist. With that in mind, Cromer acknowledged that her own casting was a win for inclusion. “By hiring an on-the-spectrum actress to play [Matilda], it just makes the performance more accurate and more honest and more respectful,” said the actor.
While projects such as The Peanut Butter Falcon, Stumptown, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay are recent examples of inclusion, it’s important that positive steps forward continue. With that in mind, we’re looking forward to the upcoming musical Best Summer Ever. IMDb describes it as “a fresh and exhilarating take on the beloved teen musical genre featuring eight original songs and a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.” The film is slated to release in March and will star Gottsagen.