Entertainment Singer Sia slammed for ableism in coming film, but does she deserve it?
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Singer Sia slammed for ableism in coming film, but does she deserve it?

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Sia’s response to the backlash surrounding her new film Music ignites a larger debate about diversity and the lack of roles for people with disabilities – but some people with autism in the entertainment industry see a different side.

Critics had several gripes with the film’s portrayal of autism and Sia’s choice to cast long-time collaborator Maddie Ziegler (who does not have autism) in the lead role.

But it was the singer/songwriter’s offensive attempts to defend the film, telling one actor with autism that they were “just a bad actor” on Twitter that ignited fury online.

Twitter users made the point that using an actor with a lived experience of disability would have made the story more authentic, and that Hollywood appeared to be obsessed with minority stories, but reluctant to include the people who live them.

“It’s a mighty shame that someone with such a colossal platform is using it to exclude disabled and neuro diverse actors from their own narratives. I’ve been a long time fan of your work, so this is really disappointing,” one user said.

The singer responded and said she had cast “13 neuroatypical people, three trans folk” as doctors, nurses and singers, “and not as f—ing [sex workers] or drug addicts”.

22-year-old Ben Sams, who has autism and attends the Perform-Ability school in NSW, said he and mum, Julie, thought Sia’s response to the backlash was inappropriate, but sympathised with her and agreed the film could be positive for people with autism.

“It’s pretty good to see … people with disabilities and social needs,” Ben told The New Daily. 

“If they were to have a low-functioning autistic child, that child would have all sorts of difficulty following direction and coping with pressure and coping with lights and noise and everything else that goes along with movie making,” Ms Sams added.

If it’s shining a positive light on a disability, is that not a good thing? From the perspective of the mother of an autistic child … If it’s something that is making more people aware of the disability, is that not a good thing?

“As long as it’s not a degrading performance, I feel like it’s a good thing.”

Not all black and white …

Defending herself against the barrage of hate, Sia said she tried to cast a person with autism, but difficulties in production led to her decision to swap in Ziegler.

“My character was pretty low functioning and after attempting a few actors on the spectrum they suggested I use Maddie,” the 44-year-old said in another tweet.

“I actually tried working with a a [sic] beautiful young girl non verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.”

Miranda Hayman, founder and director of Perform-Ability (where Ben attends), said leaving people with disabilities out of content that focuses on them means many grow up without knowing performing arts is an option.

“The reason there aren’t as many people with disabilities who are applying for these kinds of jobs is because they aren’t seeing it. And if you aren’t seeing something in front of you, then there’s nothing for you to think that you can do it too,” Ms Hayman told The New Daily. 

Ms Hayman, who has experience working with actors with autism on TV sets, said as long as the crew were prepared and educated, a person with a lived experience of autism could have been cast. 

“It looks like [Sia] has tried to do the right thing and still is, with some of the other characters.

But I think it comes down to education and understanding – I’ve worked on sets with some of our children with autism before and it’s definitely doable and I think you just need to know how to work differently and be more adaptable. 

“If I know I’m going to hire someone with a disability for a TV show, then there are certainly things you need to put in place.

“You need to talk to that person about what their needs are. Do they have a specific schedule that we need to stick to? Are there break times that need to be had? Is there a companion that they need to have with them for the majority of the time?”

Sia’s film will debut next year, and will feature a number of dance and musical numbers to her music, which will also be released on a companion album.