Aria Mia Loberti, who fulfilled her childhood dream of acting with her role of Marie-Laure LeBlanc in Shawn Levy’s “All the Light We Cannot See” series on Netflix, balanced her speech at TheWrap’s Power Women Summit Changemakers dinner with the highs and lows of her journey into the entertainment industry as a blind person, and called on others in the blind community to join her.
Obstacles that inhibited Loberti from realizing her dream sooner included the stigma of being a person with low vision in a world dominated by sighted people, and the lack of people with low vision in the stories and forms of media to which she turned in order to seek solace from the large and small moments of daily rejection she felt from society.
“I am not blaming the entertainment industry for any of this,” she said during her speech at TheWrap’s Changemakers dinner. “I am saying that by not including everyone in the stories we tell, we contribute to perpetuating that reality. We are too smart to keep making those mistakes.”
Loberti heard about the global casting search for a blind or low vision young woman in the prestige Netflix series thanks to a former teacher. While she first declined the opportunity, she later realized — at a low point during graduate school — that if she was going to be sad, she might as well go “spend an hour feeling someone else’s sad instead of [hers].”
With great humility, she walked Changemakers attendees through her prepared acceptance of the rejection she was sure was coming from executive producer and director Shawn Levy’s Zoom call. The rest is literal history: Loberti became the first person with low vision to play a leading role in a television series, and she got emotional expressing her hope that this could become normalized for the blind community.
“I am just one example of this untapped resource. No single trait should ever define the abilities of an actor,” she said at the dinner. “We do not say that sighted actors aren’t really acting when they only play sighted characters because we recognize that sighted people, each of them are different. It’s time we treat every actor, every person in every profession with that same respect. Being treated like a whole person is not a privilege to earn. It is a right.”
The actress, who hit pause on a pursuit of a PhD in order to pursue acting, remarked that blindness is not the first thing on her character Marie’s mind, nor is it a catalyst for the story of “All the Light We Cannot See.” Her portrayal of the brave girl, who broadcasts messages of resistance through her radio to help free Nazi-occupied France during World War II, still holds authenticity, though it cannot be a blanket portrayal of the blind community.
“No two members of the blind community experience vision the same, and yet we are bound together by a common culture and a shared trauma that no sighted person no matter how compassionate or well researched can really capture. I am not a blind actor. I am an actor full stop,” she said. “I bring truth to a character who may or may not be blind or low vision and that’s just one thing that I can bring to the table as an artist. I raised my skills as an athlete, a classically trained ballerina, my love of photography and food and animals and writing my knowledge of ancient languages, my anxieties, my fears, my hopes, my dreams my entire life to everything I make.”
Loberti said that she doesn’t use a white cane anymore, despite being taught to, because she was bullied so badly that she can’t pick one up without immediate PTSD. She used that experience as fuel for her performance.
“I choose not to use it and that should not be the choice that anyone has to make, but choices like that are how I portray Marie. She grew up with a loving dad who celebrated her blindness and equipped her with the tools she needed. She became a young woman though during a time where differences meant danger,” Loberti said. “While Nazi genocide of people with disabilities is only referenced maybe once or twice in the show, it was critical to building Marie. It is an honor to play a character who, even in the face of extreme hate, fights to be herself in every way.”
The Fulbright scholar called for those who heard her speech to normalize audio description, just as closed captioning has become standard. She stressed the 1% global literacy rate for blind girls and the 1% global literacy rate for people with disabilities in general for females.
Loberti also thanked the people of color and LGBTQ community as well as other artists “who have had to defend their culture’s truth and enforce respectful portrayals of their population,” and she shouted them out for letting her stand on their shoulders. But most of all, she doesn’t want to be the only one.
“A young woman with a disability who is not only literate but well educated who has a thriving career that she loves, and who is supported, is sadly not the norm. And it’s not even the expectation. I know firsthand what it’s like to be vulnerable and voiceless. And now I am a voice for so many people in rooms like this and meetings and auditions and magazine cover shoots in the beauty and fashion industry,” she continued.
“Every day I feel the weight of this. I think maybe another little girl like I was is out there interrupting her family gatherings and putting on a one girl show. And now she can turn on the TV or scroll the internet or see a billboard for a hit show and find someone like her, and I want her to be able to dream her dream and, most importantly, work towards it without barriers.”
Loberti concluded by stressing that her story should not be unique.
“Living my life to the fullest should not be an anomaly. embracing my new career with no regard to the character’s visual acuity should not be an act of rebellion,” she said. “I am not some shining unattainable beacon. I am real, honest change in this industry. I hope that I can open the door to countless other storytellers to raise up their voices and I hope you will join me in shaping this new reality. Thank you.”
For all of TheWrap’s Power Women Summit coverage, click here.