Despite Disappointing Figures, Good News Stories Exemplify Disability Representation
People living with disability lack representation in film and TV. In figures reported by CNBC, it has been revealed that only 5% of series cast overall in TV were characters with disabilities, and under 1% of the main cast. This is despite 27% of the American population being diagnosed with a disability. Despite these poor figures, there have been good news stories coming out of the US media scene over the past year that offer hope for those living with disability to move away from exploitative or stereotyped films and have true representation on the screen.
Triumph, and RJ Mitte
Perhaps the most important example of disability representation in film has been the April ‘21 release Triumph. The story of an aspiring high-school wrestler who overcomes the physical challenges posed by his diagnosis of cerebral palsy, Triumph not only features a lead star diagnosed with a disability, but an actor, Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte, who has been diagnosed with the condition in real life. Triumph is doing a lot to break down stereotypes and stigma over how conditions such as cerebral palsy operate on the big stage. Cerebral palsy impacts those diagnosed to different degrees, but one definitive cerebral palsy resource online notes how a combination of appropriate therapies – physical and mental – can be of huge assistance, and help those diagnosed to lead an independent life. Triumph is a big example of that, and could provide much needed inspiration to aspiring disabled actors.
Disability is often misunderstood by the wider population when there is an absence of visible physical symptoms. Deafness is one such condition that falls under this definition, and is also a condition that has gained a lot of recognition at this year’s Academy Awards. With the BBC highlighting a cast populated by actors diagnosed with deafness, and including Paul Raci, a child of deaf parents, The Sound of Metal also saw lead actor Riz Ahmed learning sign language to complete the role. Arguably, this piece has taken strides to improve the visibility of hidden disabilities and provide hope for those with a hearing disability.
A force for change?
Change may now be forthcoming. Over the past year, multiple notable actors and actresses have come out against what they view as exploitative auditioning processes. Sally Phillips, of Bridget Jones fame, was quoted in The Telegraph as viewing actors faking disabilities to be offensive, and that disabled roles must go to disabled actors. Similarly, April saw Amy Poehler and Naomie Harris among 80 others who signed a letter urging Hollywood producers to favor disabled actors and actresses for roles involving disability. With big names behind these changes, there is hope that, at last, disabled roles may be reserved first and foremost for those actors diagnosed with disability, who deserve a chance.
After all, the best acting comes from people with the lived experience of their characters. Giving actors with disabilities the foot in the door they need can also help to open up more roles and, just perhaps, broaden the horizons of film script writers and producers.
Garon Cockrell is the Founder and Editor of Pop Culture Beast and host of The Pop Culture Beast Show. He founded the site over seven years ago to have a place on the internet to write about the things he loved. Since then, Garon has become a best-selling author (Demonic and Other Tales), an award winning screenwriter (Best Screenplay 2013 Motor City Nightmares Film Festival), and a cast member on the top rated podcast, Never Not Funny.