This year, a number of actors with disabilities enjoyed success in high profile television roles. From Emmy Award Winning Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones to RJ Mitte as Walt Junior in Breaking Bad, both television programs have been commercially successful and have turned Dinklage and Mitte into red carpet regulars.
Historically, able-bodied actors have been cast as disabled characters and are often praised for their “realistic” portrayal. Leonardo Dicaprio famously played an intellectually disabled character in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and said of the experience “I had to really research to get into the mind of somebody like that.” Able-bodied Sam Worthington played paralyzed marine Jake Sully in Avatar and Patrick Stewart has been paraplegic Professor X since the X-Men franchise began in 2000. Whilst suitable roles exist for actors with disabilities, it’s extremely difficult to get cast because big names guarantee box office success.
However, television has often trumped cinema in terms of its progressive attitude. Who can forget Star Trek breaking from cultural tradition and screening the world’s first interracial kiss in 1968 (an episode that was pulled from the British BBC until 1994)? Consider, too, The Cosby Show and Oprah – both immensely popular TV shows that have been widely credited with improving race relations in America.
Indeed, The Cosby Show helped launch a bunch of sitcoms centered on black characters, namely The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which as we all know launched Will Smith’s career. Whilst empowering black females the country over, Oprah has also been dedicated to high impact media visibility for the LGBT community, a dedication that has normalized alternative sexualities on television and popularized shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Will and Grace.
And yet, a 2011 report on television minority representation revealed that credited characters with disabilities represented less than 1 percent of all scripted, regular characters. Furthermore, a vast majority of characters with disabilities were played by white able-bodied males. For example, Hugh Laurie (House) and Kevin McHale (Glee) both play characters with mobility issues. However, as Christine Bruno points out, there is no substitute for the lived experience of a real disability. Bruno is co-chair of the Tri-Union Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities (I AM PWD) and goes onto say, “It is not a technical skill that can be easily turned on and off. Disabled actors bring with them a lifetime of unique experiences that allow them to present authentic, nuanced portrayals that add not only to the rich, diverse fabric of our country, but create a greater understanding about the society in which we live.”
Reassuringly, there has been a positive change since that report was written. Just the other week a hugely popular contestant on the X Factorrevealed that she is blind in one eye and has limited use of her hands due to a medical condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. Thanks to her great attitude, Rion Paige has become somewhat of a spokesperson for disability rights. “You have to be accepting of yourself, which is a difficult thing, especially when you’re 13 and a girl,” she said.
To add to the roster, The Michael J. Fox Show began airing in September. Depicting Fox’s real life battle with Parkinson’s disease, the sitcom is about a retired anchorman who’s returning to work. Fox, whose four children have only ever known him with Parkinson’s, told the Guardian, “If you asked my kids to describe me, they’d go through a whole list of words before even thinking about Parkinson’s. And honestly, I don’t think about it that much either. I talk about it because it’s there, but it’s not my totality.”
Then there’s the aforementioned RJ Mitte, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has recently been named by The Screen Actors Guild as a spokesman for actors with disabilities. “Playing Walt Junior has been an eye-opener to what I’ve managed to become,” he says, “Until I got the role, I never thought what I went through was something odd… I just thought that putting on [leg] braces was one more thing that I had to do to get ready for the day.”
RJ now regularly campaigns for the inclusion of disabled actors in television and is currently filming two movies, due for release next year. “My disability made me who I am today. Hollywood shouldn’t be afraid of actors like me. Diversity can only make the stories better.” Hopefully, this signals a shift in minority casting and we will witness a more equal and more representative Hollywood that reflects the society it seeks to portray.