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'We need shows like Fair City to star people with disabilities and reflect the world we live in'

The short film Aretha stars young actress Orla Casey, who has been acting since she was in primary school.

PEOPLE TOLD DAVE Thomas that, because he has a physical disability, he would never get to have the career of his dreams.

Now, 30 years later, he has not only proved them wrong by becoming a broadcaster, but has also achieved his dream of working in the film industry. He now hopes that his first short film Aretha will help to usher in a more inclusive era for Irish cinema.

Inspired by Thomas’s experience of prejudice, the film’s star is a young actress, Orla Casey, who has Down syndrome.

Aretha, which is written by Thomas and produced by Jason Forde of the Co Wicklow-based Four Quadrant Films, sees Casey play a young woman who tries to get a job in a restaurant, and finds herself facing rejection because she has Down syndrome.

The film was inspired by Thomas’s own life. He has a physical disability and found that this presented challenges for him due to people’s perceptions about what he was and wasn’t capable of.

The short - which also stars Conor Mullen, Denise McCormack and Hilda Fay – recently won the best short film award at the Respect festival in Belfast. 

The news of the film comes on the heels of the recent appearance of actor Mark Smith on Tommy Tiernan’s RTÉ chat show. Like Casey, Smith too has Down Syndrome. Last year he debuted his work Making at Mark at the Dublin Fringe Festival, which explored the story of his life. 

Smith also made a call for more inclusion on screen in Ireland, saying that we need to have more people with Down syndrome entering the acting business:

Meanwhile, his creative partner Aisling Byrne told TheJournal.ie that accessibility is all-encompassing.

“I truly believe we have an accessibility issue in Ireland in terms of theatre and getting people into shows,” she said.

Thinking of access as not just putting a ramp in, but also how do we reach out to audiences and let them know that this is on and engage them in work?

‘I was told it was a pipe dream’

Dave Thomas has long been facing barriers and knocking them down. While completing his Leaving Cert in Dublin in the mid-80s, the young Thomas knew what he wanted to do – work in media and film. 

“But I had been advised that wasn’t possible,” he says. “I was told by the so-called experts and career guidance people that it was a pipe dream; that it wasn’t possibly due to my disability.”

He was advised to get a ‘regular’ job and “get the stupid ideas out of my head”.

Thomas walks with a limp due to the fact he has wasted muscles from his knees down in both legs. “I knew, I could tell straight away people could look and the job wasn’t even an option for me,” he says. “I was being written off.”

When he then decided to pursue his dream, he still had producers telling him that he would have a difficult time working in the media because of his disability.

“I ignored all of that and ended up working as an independent broadcast journalist for RTÉ, Radio 1 and Newstalk producing documentaries and shows,” says Thomas. “I’ve written for almost every major Irish newspaper and magazine over the course of 30 years of a career.”

In 2016 he pivoted to work in film professionally, and has since written a number of film scripts. 

‘She is written off’

“Having also been a disability activist and an LGBTQ activist I knew what it was like being an oppressed minority, being gay and having a disability,” says Thomas. That experience is reflected in the screenplay for Aretha.

He says the title character “has a lot of me in it”. In the film, Aretha wants to work in a restaurant after her Leaving Cert, but due to having Down syndrome “she is being written off and judged by the manager of the restaurant”. 

Thomas says that while Ireland has progressed in some ways in how people with disabilities are treated, there is still stigma attached to it. He says that people tend to judge a book by its cover, which is a “human flaw”. Because of this, he doesn’t intend the film to be preachy, and the character of the manager is not presented as a bad person. 

Instead, he is a “decent and kind man” who doesn’t understand how to deal with Aretha asking for a job. “This woman is a person with Down syndrome and that is his perception, that she would not be able for it.”

Aretha - Orla Casey as Aretha Orla Casey as Aretha

But as the short shows, Aretha “is a strong young woman who won’t take no for an answer”.

Aretha isn’t made out to be a trope either: “She has her flaws too like anyone else, like any young person starting out in a job, no one is perfect.”

“The portrayal of people with intellectual or physical disabilities has been stereotyped [on screen], maybe in soap operas or programmes it is a token gesture,” adds Thomas. 

Producer Jason Forde said that the script won about 13 awards before he got involved. “As a producer you’re all the time looking for scripts that have an original voice, and this resonated with me.”

When Thomas met Forde, he had been finding it hard to get funding, so they entered a Film Offaly competition and won €10k to help them to make the project.

It was all filmed in one location in Tullamore. “People were very supportive in the town and everyone did it because of the nature of the story,” says Thomas.

Arklow-based Thomas met Casey and her dad Anthony over coffee in 2016, “and I knew within 10 seconds that Orla was the person to play the part”.

IMG_20191006_163314_150 Orla Casey

Breaking down barriers

Casey has been acting since primary school, and her first film role was in Maria Doyle Kennedy’s award-winning short A Different Kind of Day. “I’ve always loved going to musicals and shows, which made me want to get involved in acting,” Casey tells TheJournal.ie

When she told her parents that she wanted to act, her dad Anthony says their reaction was: “Why not – this is what she wants to do with her life, so we will support her all the way. It’s wonderful to see Orla succeeding in her acting. Of course we are very proud of her.”

Asked if she had anything in common with Aretha, in terms of her personality or what she experienced, Casey says: “I’m hard working in college and at home and am loyal to my family and friends. I’d like to have a job and be independent the same as Aretha.”

A film like this is important, she says, “because it shows that people with disabilities should have the same choice as other people who don’t have disabilities in getting a job.”

Her father Anthony agrees, saying: “The world is changing. Orla was lucky that her generation was one of the first to have access to supported education. The challenge now is to follow on with work opportunities for people with disabilities – this is one of the issues the film addresses.”

When her father first read the plot, he was initially concerned. “Aretha has a strong storyline with Orla’s character being bullied and losing her job, I was concerned Orla would find this difficult,” he says. “The strong ending to the film however brings a positive turn around which made me more comfortable with the plot.”

When asked about whether attitudes in Ireland are changing towards people with disabilities working in the acting industry, Casey says it’s “a tricky question to answer”.

“But I don’t know of many actors who had disabilities before now,” she says.

Interestingly, the highest-grossing independent film in the USA last year was The Peanut Butter Falcon, a comedy-drama about a young man with Down syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen) who leaves an assisted living facility and befriends a fisherman on the run (Shia LaBoeuf).

The filmmakers, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, met Gottsagen at a camp for actors with disabilities, and wrote the film after being “floored by his talent“.

The advice Casey would give to someone who faces a situation like Aretha faced is clear: “Believe in yourself and if someone gives you a hard time talk to someone that can help you.”

She is currently studying Performing Arts, and is looking to get an agent for more acting work. “I’d love to act as a career,” says Casey, adding that working on Aretha made her want to write her own script and make her own films.

Her father says that while attitudes are changing, “it would be great if a series such as Fair City had more actors with disabilities to more accurately reflect the world we live in.”

Change happening

Dave Thomas hopes that the message people will take from his film is “try not to judge a person by how they look or how they walk, or if they are in a wheelchair”.

“There is a change happening and Aretha is not following a trend, it’s part of breaking the mould,” he says.

But he hopes that in 10 or 15 years’ time, people will look back at Aretha and think its plot is outdated:

“It will be great when it becomes part of the norm where we have people in major feature films who do not have to [just be in] disability storylines; they are just in it, another actor playing a part.”

This morning at some of the cast of Aretha will appear as guests on Virgin Media One on Ireland AM at 11am.

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