Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.

One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.

And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!

Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.

Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.

The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!

I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.

Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or  how he acquired it.

These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?

When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?

23 Comments

  1. I think the correlation between good portrayals and the actors being disabled probably happens because (except in cases where the disability could not be simulated) a disabled person being cast implies that the production team put above-average amounts of thought into disability issues, or at least enough to think either ‘Let’s definitely have a disabled actor for this role’ or ‘Let’s encourage disabled as well as non-disabled actors to try for this role’.

    Of course it’s not always necessarily true: some disabilities can’t be simulated by a non-disabled person, some productions cast a disabled person but have a stereotyped script, and some productions address disability issues creatively and thoughtfully while casting a non-disabled person as a disabled character. But I do think that actively recruiting disabled actors (and production staff and crew members generally) implies a more enlightened understanding of disability issues than is common in society. And I mean that in a workplace/employment issues context as well as a creative endeavours context…

  2. It looks like Lauren Potter’s Glee character will be assisting Sue Sylvester in the tryouts for new Cheerios. She’s a really good actor, I wish she were in something where her purpose wasn’t tantamount to comic foil/antagonist’s sidekick.

    She was also in a film that had an interesting depiction of Down’s Syndrome: specifically she played the child version of a character who, as an adult, fell in love with a man who did not have Down’s. The movie is called “Mr. Blue Sky” (the biggest name in it is Richard Karn, the sidekick from the sitcom “Home Improvement”) and I’m wondering if anyone else saw it. (It’s available from Netflix for U.S. readers.)

  3. The Guild (web series about gamers) had a major character last season who pops up this season who is a wheelchair user. Teal Sherer is ACTUALLY a wheelchair user. She is a sexual and complex character. Awesome writing by the creators of the show.

  4. One good depiction that comes to mind is the character of Dr. Spencer Reed on the TV show “Criminal Minds,” played by Matthew Gray Gubler. To my knowledge, Gubler is not disabled. Although it’s never said outright, he appears to be playing a character with Asperger’s, and I think the depiction is very good. The writing is excellent, and Gubler’s acting is dead-on. In the Dr. Reed character, I see a great deal of my voice tone, my social/communication issues, my literal thinking, and my need to analyze human behavior in order to understand it. He’s also portrayed as very human–capable of having relationships, of being attractive to others, of empathizing deeply, of struggling with shades of gray, etc. Of course, on the show, he’s a genius with an eidetic memory, which is not true for most people with Asperger’s, but it’s not exactly unheard of either. I think it’s great that an Aspie is being portrayed in such a positive light, as opposed to the Asperger’s character on “Bones” who turned out to be a psychopath and who, even before that unfortunate turn in the writing of his character, was very much a cold, unfeeling, clueless, walking stereotype.

  5. The season won’t start until spring, but I assume RJ Mitte will return as the lead character’s son with cerebral palsy in “Breaking Bad”. Mitte has CP, although it’s a much milder case than his character’s.

    I remember being quite impressed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” when I was a teen, but I haven’t seen the movie in about ten years; maybe I’d be more critical today.

  6. I think there’s also RJ Mitte, on Breaking Bad, an actor with cerebral palsy who plays the lead character’s son, who also has cerebral palsy.

  7. Add one to the list: Breaking Bad. Walt Junior has cerebral palsy and he’s played by an actor who also has it. I haven’t seen a whole lot of the series but from what I’ve seen he’s a very well-rounded character.

  8. Movies tend to do a better job than regular TV shows, for whatever reason.

    Megan Follows’ performance in Under the Piano, for example, is spectacular. It’s a true story about two sisters. Megan Follows’ character, Rosie, is autistic, and her sister Franny (who I believe is younger), played by Amanda Plummer, has a paralyzed arm (this is shown by the character wearing an arm brace). The girls have older siblings, as well, but the story focuses on these two as they grow up under the controlling hand of their mother, whose operatic ambitions were apparently destroyed by marriage and children. It’s set in the 1940s & 1950s. Franny eventually gets married, and she is Rosie’s strongest advocate, pushing for her sister to be allowed to have a job and live away from their mother. A lot of portrayals of autism show a lack of emotion – that is partly due to the writing and partly due to the acting – but this particular movie demonstrates that Rosie has feelings and has strong emotional attachments to the people in her life.

    There is also Snow Cake, of course. Sigourney Weaver does a fantastic job as Linda. I enjoyed it, but I think the writing of the autistic character was not quite as good. (I realize that the author has an autistic child, but that doesn’t mean she knows what autistic people are like as adults.)

  9. I really enjoyed the movie Phebe in Wonderland and its depiction of mental illness in a child. The title character was played by Elle Fanning and she did a very accurate portrayal of a child struggling to deal with her illness in a non-accepting world. The movie also had an critique of the mental health system’s desire to label children. Their was also a bit about gender non-conformity that made me want to cheer, as kids who don’t conform to the binary are rarely portrayed on the screen, big or small.

  10. Oh, and belatedly — to answer your question “Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?”:

    Claire Danes as Temple Grandin, although perhaps it helps that she was portraying a specific, real person instead of a fictional one.

  11. I’ve thought the portrayal of Max on Parenthood has been interesting. Max is about 9 years old, and he has Asperger’s. My feelings about the way the character has been portrayed have been mixed. There have been some scenes, sometimes just a single line or gesture or something, that make me think, “Wow, that’s exactly right. Someone on this show knows what they’re doing.” And then there have been other things that have really made me cringe. Particularly, at the end of last season, (spoiler?), we found out that Max’s parents haven’t told him about his diagnosis. In either the last or the second to last episode, his family was participating in a fundraiser for Autism Speaks (which, issues already), and when they were having a big family gathering to plan for it, and he was getting really excited about all the plans and everything and shouted something like, “Yeah! Let’s walk for those kids with autism!” Then there was a really uncomfortable moment as his grandparents and aunts and uncles all looked at each other and asked, “Doesn’t he know?” Then, later on in the episode, after they won the prize for raising the most money, Max asks his father something like, “Why do we raise money for this group? Why not some other group? Aren’t there lots of people who need help? Why did we pick this one?” And his father hesitates for a few moments, and then says, “Because they give the best trophies.” There was also a scene in that episode where Max’s mother asked his doctor whether they were doing the right thing by not telling him, and the doctor pretty much replied that whatever felt right to them was the right thing.

    Now that I think about it, pretty much every moment that’s made me say “Yes! That’s it!” has been a scene of Max himself — there have just been so many times that I’ve recognized myself as a child, or kids that I’ve worked with or known, in him — and all the ones that have made me cringe have been ones about how the adults around him interact with him. There was another episode where they thought that his five-year-old cousin might also have Asperger’s, and I was just seething at the way all the parents involved were dealing with that. (And then they found out that the cousin doesn’t have Asperger’s, she’s “just” gifted, and the parents were all relieved, and I really hope they get back to that some time and look at all the issues that gifted kids have, because really, it’s ridiculous that her behavior was problematic when they thought she had Asperger’s, but that same exact behavior is now wonderful when they’ve got a different label to stick on her.)

  12. I think it’s great that an Aspie is being portrayed in such a positive light, as opposed to the Asperger’s character on “Bones” who turned out to be a psychopath and who, even before that unfortunate turn in the writing of his character, was very much a cold, unfeeling, clueless, walking stereotype.

    I’ve seen a lot of commentary from regular viewers toward the idea that Dr. Brennan on “Bones” is also meant to have Aspergers, or that she at least exhibits some Asperger’s-like traits. (There is an internet meme now that capitalizes on her very specific and often quite literal interpretations of common idiom, often in rather humorous ways.) I haven’t watched the show enough to decide if she’s meant to be an Aspie or just someone who’s so consumed by her work that the outside world passes her by.

  13. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about Auggie Anderson (played by Christopher Gorham) on Covert Affairs. I enjoy the show, and I like that they make him a person who is still useful and good at what he does after becoming blind, but I’d rather see a disabled actor filling those shoes, obviously.

    ~Kali

  14. Re:Dr. Brennan on Bones, I can’t find the story right now because Busy, but I do recall reading that she specifically is not on the autism spectrum.

  15. re: s.e. smith

    That’s funny, because one of my favorite Hart Hanson quotes says that she is, and that if the show had been on a cable network (or something) it would have been announced early on!

    Which made me all the more upset when that had that awful episode with the autistic boy. Bones gets some things very right, but whenever they try to have a subject with a mental illness or disability nothing quite works.

  16. Interesting! I wonder what’s going on with those mixed messages. I’ve seen numerous denials.

    ETA: I went hunting for the specific article I was thinking of and now can’t find it, but I did come up with this piece, where Hansen says he deliberately didn’t label her for fear it wouldn’t get picked up on a network, and that she’s based on a friend of his with Aspergers, so I may stand corrected!

  17. I saw an interview with Emily Deschanel (who plays Dr. Brennan on Bones). She said that the writers had started out giving her the character of someone with Asperger’s, but never completed the depiction. After reading what Hansen said, I now understand why. It makes for a very odd character, though. She has a lot of Asperger’s traits, and then a lot of traits in direct conflict with Asperger’s traits.

    The character of Zach Addy, however, was clearly based on an Aspie male stereotype, even if they never came out and said he was an Aspie. I’m kind of glad they didn’t, given the way his character turned out.

  18. Really good points about Parenthood, Ruchama. I basically watch the show now just out of nervousness about how we are being represented, and it largely makes me really unhappy. The Autism Speaks advertisement is just part of it.

    I think that the show’s main writer or producer has a son diagnosed with AS, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that the child actor who plays Max has spent time with autistic kids. It shows–the portrayal is believable. Yet at the same time, I’m just really, really bothered by it. I feel like everything he does just screams “AUTISM/ASPERGER’S.” He’s not an individual. The writers are so concerned that it comes across as authentic that they forgot to make him an individual character along the way. As so often happens with neuro-atypical characters. It’s just so, so frustrating.

    When I see Max I do see myself as a child, and it’s uncomfortable to me, largely because of the way the other characters react to him. Especially his mother (Kristina)–I really, really can’t stand her character. The way he is treated as “defective,” the assumptions which are made about his future, the way he is portrayed as a burden to his parents and sister–the “real,” individual characters–all of it just infuriates me. It’s clear that we’re meant to empathize with the neurotypical family members, not Max. As someone who is/was a lot like Max, watching the show is an incredibly Othering experience.

    From reading interviews with the actors, it seems clear that the show’s idea of “showing how a family deals with Asperger’s” is full of stereotypes and misconceptions. I’ve seen quotes from Monica Potter (Kristina) discussing the supposedly high divorce rates of families with AS kids–even though that has been grossly exaggerated.

    And yes, yes, yes to the “gifted” storyline. That is truly an object lesson in ableism. One kind of neurological difference is completely wonderful, while another is a terrible tragedy. ARGH.

  19. When asked if Brennan might not actually have Asperger syndrome – a condition many doctors consider a form of high-functioning autism – Deschanel nodded.

    “Hart Hanson, the creator of the show, and I discuss, you know, that my character almost has Asperger syndrome, and, you know, if maybe if it was a film, that I maybe specifically would have Asperger’s,” she said.

    “If you look at the character of Zack, [a Brennan subordinate who’s] played by Eric Millegan, he almost definitely has Asperger syndrome,” she added.
    http://www.philly.com/dailynews/columnists/ellen_gray/5424161.html

    This is from 2007, but I’ve heard Emily Deschanel say consistently through the seasons that she thinks Brennan has “something like” Asperger’s. I think they don’t want to actually pin a diagnosis on her because then they would feel obliged to show a ~realistic~ portrayal and pick things out of a diagnostic handbook rather than just doing whatever they want with her as a character.

  20. Sheldon on Big Bang Theory may have Asperger’s. I think he is more likely than Brennan on Bones.

    I would love to see more disabled actors in a variety of roles on TV. Actors like Teal Sherer could anchor any show and it would be great to see her career take off.
    http://www.tealsherer.com/

  21. “And yes, yes, yes to the “gifted” storyline. That is truly an object lesson in ableism. One kind of neurological difference is completely wonderful, while another is a terrible tragedy. ARGH.”

    It also completely ignores the fact that there are plenty of people who are both gifted and on the autism spectrum. (I taught for a few summers at a program for gifted kids, and there were several who I was told had been officially diagnosed with Aspergers, and several others who I strongly suspected would fit the criteria.) But in that story line, a little girl making a rubber band ball and keeping track of how many rubber bands went onto it, and totally freaking out when her father took a few off to use for something — this was a cause for concern when they thought she might have Aspergers, but then a cause for celebration when it was evidence of her giftedness. It’s still the same rubber band ball, and the same little girl screaming the same words about how her father ruined everything by taking some rubber bands.

    It’s been a while since I watched the show (I haven’t watched since the finale last season), but I seem to recall thinking that Max’s father was generally a lot better with him than Max’s mother. Max’s mother seems really concerned with getting him to look and act “normal,” while Max’s father takes much more of a, “My kid wants to talk to me for half an hour about lizards? OK, sure, I’ll learn about lizards” attitude, as opposed to the mother’s “Max, we can talk about lizards for five minutes, and then we’re going to talk about what someone else wants to talk about.”

  22. “My kid wants to talk to me for half an hour about lizards? OK, sure, I’ll learn about lizards” attitude, as opposed to the mother’s “Max, we can talk about lizards for five minutes, and then we’re going to talk about what someone else wants to talk about.”

    mou. i wish i wanted to talk for half an hour about lizards. i bet i could get someone to listen if i wanted to talk about lizards. i like scavengers. most humans don’t. 🙁

  23. In the summer series Huge, the actress who played Allistair and Chole’s mother was in a wheelchair, and the actress herself uses a wheelchair. It was intentional on the part of the creator/writers. You can read more about it (and other awesome stuff from the writer, too) in Leslie Kinzel’s interview with Savannah Dooley over at Fatshionista: http://www.fatshionista.com/cms/index.php?option=com_mojo&Itemid=69&p=552