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Disability Representation in Pop Culture

Millions of people watch television shows and movies everyday. Having a variety of disabilities represented throughout all genres is a powerful way to help all people learn about disabilities. Even though it’s important for this knowledge to be spread, able-bodied actors shouldn’t be playing characters with disabilities. Part of the representation is having actors with disabilities play these characters. This blog argues that characters with disabilities should be played by actors with disabilities. It’s not only about having actors represent, but also normalizing their character. The character should be much more than just their disability. Their disability shouldn’t be the only part of their character storyline.  

There are a number of tv shows and movies that accurately represent misfit bodies. These shows continue to help break down stereotypes.

Let’s take a look at appropriate character representation: 

R.J. Mitte

R.J. Mitte is an actor most known for his role as Walter Jr. in Breaking Bad. He lives and acts with cerebral palsy but that hasn’t stopped him. He is a Spokesman for I AM PWD  (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers With Disabilities). In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said “About 20 percent of people have disabilities, but only about 1 percent of speaking parts in television portray disability.” Mitte constantly pushes himself and other actors with disabilities to book auditions for non-disabled roles. In 2016, Mitte worked as a reporter for the Paralympics and said disabled people shouldn’t just be seen on TV every four years.  “I would love to switch on my TV and see a disabled person talking about something they are genuinely interested in or acting out a part that doesn’t just focus on their impairment,” Mitte said in an interview with Variety. Mitte hopes that one day, disabled actors will be seen as equals in the media.

Peter Dinklage

Peter Dinklage, an actor with Dwarfism, is most known for his role as Tyrion Lannester in Game of Thrones. Part of the reason he accepted the role in Game of Thrones was because the role went against the typical look for a dwarf role, the character was a real human being. Dinklage himself wasn’t always as comfortable with his disability as he is now – he says that as an adolescent he was bitter and angry, and that he put walls up around himself. Dinklage has gone out of his way to choose roles that upend stereotypes about the parts usually offered to those his height. He says his role as Tyrion “does address the size issue, but it doesn’t knock you over the head with it. Because you don’t really need to.” Game of Thrones represents numerous disabilities throughout the series and has fans among disabilities activists as well. Listen to this clip where NPR speaks to Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability and a dwarf, on how Game of Thrones has represented misfit-bodied people. 

While many shows are breaking the barriers on disabilities, there are still plenty of shows that hire able-bodied people to play disabled characters. It was reported that 95% of actors who play disabled characters are able-bodied actors. The study proves that people with disabilities are the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood. Here are just some shows that hired able-bodied people to play disabled characters: 

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything 

In 2014, Universal Pictures distributed a film titled The Theory of Everything. It was released as a biographical drama that details the life of the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The film was received very well among both audiences and critics alike, with actor Eddie Redmayne taking home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his depiction of Stephen Hawking. Scott Jordan Harris, a disabled individual himself, wrote an article for after the film’s release, criticizing the choice to have an able-bodied individual play the role of Hawking for cinematic purposes. One quote that holds a lot of weight in the article is: “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field, and the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation on screen”. While this movie had the potential to showcase a talented disabled actor, it instead showcased an able-bodied actor, which was seen as a missed opportunity by many. 

Kevin McHale as the character Artie in Glee

The character Artie is a paraplegic due to a car accident when he was eight years old. Hiring a non-disabled person to play the role stirred up much controversy and still does to this day. What bothers many people the most is how Glee did not hire a professional to help guide and educate McHale on how to accurately portray a paraplegic. Blogger Bob Vogel states, “[it] is glaringly apparent by Artie’s ridiculous seating and positioning…” The controversy led to fellow actors speaking out about their feelings regarding Glee’s decision to cast an able-bodied person to play a paraplegic. Robert David Hall from CSI spoke to Daily Telegraph saying, “I think there’s a fear of litigation, that a person with disabilities might slow a production down, fear that viewers might be uncomfortable.”, but continues with  “I’ve made my living as an actor for 30 years and I walk on two artificial legs.” One needs to consider the fact that the show of Glee requires a wide range of talent and it may have been harder to find exactly what the directors were looking for. At the same time producers of the show and Kevin McHale should have taken the time and consideration to do justice to and authenticate the role of Artie since the main theme of the show is centered around acceptance. 

Max Burkholder as Max Braverman in Parenthood 

Max Burkholder portrayed a young man with Asperger’s syndrome (high-functioning autism). In the first season of the show, Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s. The Braverman’s family story from then on focuses heavily on their journey with Max’s diagnosis and how it alters everyday life. As a character, Max helps shed light on the often misunderstood behaviors and feelings of people with autism, specifically children and teenagers.  Buzzfeed writer, Emily Orley wrote an article titled, “How Parenthood Broke Down The Autism Awareness Barrier,” explaining the ways Parenthood can claim authenticity. She goes into how the actor prepared for the role by saying, “Burkholder, who’s now 16 and knew ‘just the basics about autism’ when he was cast, was determined to fully commit himself to the part from the get-go. Right after he was cast, he started researching the disorder, reading books, speaking with activists, getting involved with the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, and generally gaining a better understanding of what it means to be on the spectrum.”

While there are some great examples of television shows and movies in Hollywood that actually hire disabled individuals as actors, there are still many that do not. The examples that we listed above  prove that there are plenty of disabled actors who are just as talented and are able to be on screen. Able-bodied actors who portray disabled individuals do not intend to be offensive and might not even understand that they are potentially taking a job away from a misfit body. We also have to acknowledge the importance of accessibility not just on college campuses but also through programs on college campuses. In the end, it is important to take into consideration that there is such a vast range of talent in the disabled community. It is important that their stories are told, there is diversity and there is accurate representation, whether it’s in Hollywood or at the Bluett Theatre on SJU campus.

Watch this video to hear from a few more misfit body actors who are breaking these barriers in Hollywood:

Written By: Sarah Harwick, Nick Milando, Nora Kenney and Olivia Schargel

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