People living with disability have enjoyed a greater level of representation in terms of on-screen stories. However, according to the New York Times, this has not translated to a greater uptake of disabled actors, with 95% of roles portrayed by non-disabled actors – despite ever greater proportions of productions featuring some form of significant disability. When it comes to doing more, turning to the industry’s disability-diagnosed stars is a good place to consider representation.
RJ Mitte and representation
One of the most high-profile actors living with disability in recent years is RJ Mitte, famed for his role as Walt Jr in the blockbuster AMC show Breaking Bad. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, within which there are complex classifications including dyskinetic, ataxic and diplegic cerebral palsy, which affect his motor coordination. Alongside excelling in his role, RJ Mitte has brought issues over disability representation to the fore. In a profile for IndieWire, RJ Mitte’s contribution to raising the profile of actors with disabilities was noted.
Sons of Anarchy
TV has proved to be fertile ground for providing opportunities for disabled actors. Another notable actor in recent hit productions is Kurt Yaeger. As the Wall Street Journal highlights, Yaeger excelled in his role in biker gang serial Sons of Anarchy, where his character, an amputee, was a hit among viewers and gave a chance for viewers to directly engage with the experience of disabled characters.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
A sleeper hit, The Peanut Butter Falcon was a soft and sentimental view of disability, telling the story of friendship between Shia LaBeouf’s fisherman and Zack Gottsagen, an actor diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The film was an opportunity, once again, for a disabled actor to play in a disabled role – and one that provided more empowerment than other films sometimes do, according to The Guardian. It’s important in films concerning disability that the characters enjoy their own agency within the script, and are provided with the opportunity to grow and create their own imprint on the film. The Peanut Butter Falcon did just this.
More needs to be done, of course. Observers have noted how Marvel films have repeatedly featured amputees as characters and, yet, not a single disabled actor has been cast in the series. This is the crux of the matter – and until the biggest productions start realizing and promoting the talents of disabled actors, it will remain a challenge.