By Ian Jones @IDJONESPHOTOG
Last semester I wrote that there needed to be more disabled characters played by actually disabled people in movies and TV, otherwise the portrayal too often rings hollow. (I’m looking at you, Glee.) For years, disability was treated on TV with an unrealistic sweetness and caution.
I applauded the shows that I could think of that had a disabled actor on cast (particularly RJ Mitte from “Breaking Bad” and Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones,”) and called for Hollywood to do more of that.
After the piece went to print I was thrilled to learn of a few more examples, and even more when you include characters & actors with dyslexia.
Also, when I wrote that column, I didn’t know about ABC’s then-upcoming sitcom “Speechless.” I was skeptical about it for a while I mean, Disney owns ABC. My mind started to change when I found out Micah Fowler actually has cerebral palsy. Learning that the brother of the creator of the show has CP was the tipping point. I had to check it out.
In short, I wasn’t disappointed. The character JJ isn’t written overly sympathetically, nor does he tend to be the butt of the jokes in the show. In fact, it looks as though he’s the straight man a lot of the time, or that we are supposed to see things through his eyes in his scenes. Sympathy, no. Compassion? Definitely.
His disability is treated exactly how it should be: just a fact of life for a multifaceted character, who just happens to be disabled. Occasionally, the show gets silly, but not at JJ’s expense.
Similar to RJ Mitte and “Walter Jr.” on Breaking Bad, Fowler and JJ both have cerebral palsy, although their actual cases are much more mild than their respective characters. Walter Jr. walks with crutches while RJ Mitte doesn’t, and JJ is non-verbal while Micah Fowler does speak.
In an interview with New Mobility magazine, Fowler said he loves playing a character with a more severe diagnosis “because it’s an acting challenge for me.”
One of my other favorite shows, Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” has a character with the extremely rare condition cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD.) The show’s writers included it in the show because the actor who plays Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has CCD, although his case is mild. Matarazzo was born without a collarbone, and at 14, still has his baby teeth. On the show, his character has the epithet “Toothless” assigned to him by the show’s bully.
Matarazzo has become somewhat of an advocate for people with CCD. “I just want to raise awareness and let people know it’s not something they should be afraid of showing.” After the show premiered, he said he’s gotten a lot of feedback from others with the condition, saying “‘you made me feel better about myself, that you can show that you have this condition on TV and embrace it,” he said to Today’s Gabrielle Frank.
In the case of “Speechless,” however, I reached a point where I appreciated the show. But since I could relate to JJ a little too much, there wasn’t really anything for me to stick with it. I highly recommend that you check it out, but for me, it was sort of preaching to the choir.
I still say there needs to be more inclusivity in Hollywood. While there’s still a lot of work to do, with shows like Breaking Bad, Speechless and Stranger Things, it sounds as though we’re on the right track.
I’m used to being gawked at by little kids, but maybe if we keep pushing for representation in Hollywood, disability will be normalized in society, and grown adults will finally know how to act around me: in other words, like it’s not a big deal, because, really, it isn’t.