Making A Positive Awareness In The Media: 12 Actors With Disabilities

November 22, 2016
Actors with disabilities

The awareness of disabilities and long-term illnesses in the media has risen considerably in the last few years, where actors with disabilities are making a positive impact and landing key roles regardless of their disabilities. There's an ongoing argument where non-disabled actors are playing disabled roles, even though real disabled actors are available, which is particularly evident in Hollywood films. So within this feature we've specifically focused on television media, as there's a positive increase in the amount of disabled actors now landing major roles in television.

Although the public shouldn’t necessarily look to the media to learn about these disabilities, it’s certainly raising the awareness and helping to dissolve stigmas around the subject. The lack of disabled actors in television and film is something which has improved considerably over the years, however still needs changing and is an area which needs much more discussion and attention.

Good news is that there are already quite a few channels out there trying to make those changes, including the BBC, and some truly remarkable television shoes that are making waves in the media. A recent one to watch out for is ABC's new comedy "Speechless" which follows a family of five with a special needs child.

​“In July 2014, BBC Director General Tony Hall pledged to quadruple the number of disabled people on screen by 2017”

​This feature outlines 12 actors with disabilities and long-term illnesses that are making a positive awareness in the media with their outstanding performances in television phenomenons such as "Game of Thrones", "Breaking Bad", "Stranger Things" and more. Check out which actors are on the list, as well as an infographic which presents some statistics on the employment of disabled actors within television.

1

Peter Dinklage

Show Spotlight: Game of Thrones

Disability: Restricted Growth (Dwarfism)

Peter dinkllage

Award-winning actor Peter Dinklage has earned an incredible place in the media spotlight for his outstanding performance as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s "Game of Thrones" television series.

Winning both a Golden Globe and Emmy award for his performance as Tyrion Lannister, he’s created a positive awareness around Restricted Growth (Dwarfism), especially not only being part of such a popular television show but playing such a major character within the show.

This is an incredible example of how a real disabled actor playing a key role can have such a positive impact and awareness and that professional actors should be considered for these roles regardless of their disability or long-term illness.

Rather than playing a typical comedy role which Dwarfs are usually often seen playing, Peter has made a breakthrough for both disability in television and increased the awareness of Dwarfism.

Further reading links:

2

RJ Mitte

Show Spotlight: Breaking Bad

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

Looking for acting opportunities where his disability would serve to educate viewers, actor RJ Mitte landed his most iconic role to date as Walter “Flynn” White Junior on AMC’s Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning “Breaking Bad” series.

Living with Cerebral Palsy, just like his “Breaking Bad” character, RJ Mitte is on a mission to get more disabled people on TV and to increase the awareness. Unlike his character Flynn though, Mitte doesn’t need to rely on any walking devices and RJ had to learn to slur his speech to create a more dramatic version of his own disability.

A celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy, RJ Mitte is an inspiration around the world. He’s engaged in public speaking, has been seen gracing the catwalk and was also part of Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage back in September this year.

"He hopes seeing more disabled people on TV will increase understanding of disability and make people more comfortable around disabled people"

Further reading links:

RJ Mitte

3

Gaten Matarazzo

Show Spotlight: Stranger Things

Disability: Cleidocranial Dysplasia

Stranger Things

Bringing awareness to Cleidocranial Dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder, Gaten Matarazzo is an upcoming actor to watch out for! Known for playing Dustin in Netflix’s cult hit series “Stranger Things”, he certainly holds his own as one of the coolest characters.

“It’s a condition where you’re born without your collarbones,” he told Ross. “I don’t have any. It affects your facial growth, your skull growth, your teeth — that’s why I don’t have any [teeth], these are fake right here. I have teeth, but they’re all baby teeth. I need a lot of surgery.”

At just 14 years old, Gaten is making a positive awareness around his disability at such a young age by speaking openly about it on chat shows and other media interviews. Although his disability isn’t directly related to his character in “Stranger Things”, Gaten is showing that a professional actor can be cast for a key role despite their disability. With season 2 of “Stranger Things” on the horizon, there’s plenty more of this charismatic little start to come.

Further reading links:

4

Russell Harvard

Show Spotlight: Fargo

Disability: Hearing Loss

Born with Deafness, Russell Harvard has been acting since a child. Landing his first villainous role as Mr.Wench in “Fargo” the crime-drama television series, he was happy to play somebody that wasn’t himself and play a character that wasn’t defined by being deaf.

Although Russell Harvard’s role in “Fargo” isn’t a positive character to look up to in the show, since he’s a bit of a villain, the idea that Harvard can play a villain (like any other professional actor) is a step in the right direction for showing that actors can land and should audition for major roles regardless of their disabilities.

Further reading links:

Russell Harvard
5

Sarah Gordy

Show Spotlight: Call The Midwife

Disability: Down's Syndrome

Sarah Gordy

Sarah Gordy, a professional actress, dancer and model with Down’s Syndrome, is best known for her high-profile role as Sally Harper in the BBC’s “Call The Midwife”, a television series set during the 1950s. As well as BBC shows, Sarah has acted in short films, radio dramas, commercials and many theatre productions.

With 10 years experience on stage and television, her aim is to play roles where people see her as a woman and actress first rather than just someone with Down’s Syndrome. The BBC’s “Call The Midwife” was a major turning point where they didn’t see her as just an actress with a disability, they saw her as a woman first. Some of Gordy’s earlier accounts with the BBC weren’t so promising though…

“She told Disability News Service that she was once informed by senior BBC executives “in business suits” that she was “not Down’s enough”, “not pitiful enough” and “too attractive” to play the part of a character with Down’s syndrome”

This stigma around actors with disabilities needs to end. Someone with a disability like Down’s Syndrome needs to be seen in their own right and for their own acting talents, not just playing someone with Down’s Syndrome that viewers need to pity and feel sorry for. Sarah Gordy is making viewers look up to her as a role model and a confident and powerful woman.

Further reading links:

6

Colin Young

Show Spotlight: Call The Midwife

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

Co-star with Sarah Gordy on BBC’s “Call The Midwife”, Colin Young is a disabled actor with Cerebral Palsy. Making his debut in “Call The Midwife”, Colin played the role of Jacob Milligan who had an on-screen relationship with Sally Harper, played by Sarah Gordy who is an actress with Down’s Syndrome.

Although featuring two disabled characters having a relationship has been a massive breakthrough for disability portrayal and acceptance within the media thanks to “Call The Midwife”, both Colin Young and Sarah Gordy believe there is still a long way to go. All professional actors who are disabled should be getting cast for their talent and abilities rather than to just portray their disability.

Further reading links:

Colin Young
7

Michael J. Fox

Show Spotlight: The Good Wife

Disability: Parkinson's Disease

Michael J Fox

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1992 at just 30 years old, Michael J. Fox has soldiered on with his acting career, showing determination and becoming a huge inspiration to other people with disabilities and health conditions.

Despite having Parkinson’s Disease, Fox has continuously showed commitment and motivation within his acting career and has successfully contributed to positive awareness around Parkinson’s Disease, by sending out the message that people with a disability or condition can carry out a relatively normal life and do things which they’re passionate about.

Landing his recurring role as the character Louis Canning, a cut-throat lawyer, in the CBS drama “The Good Wife”, Michael J. Fox was able to show that just because he’s an actor with a disability, that doesn’t mean he should have to play a role where he’s portrayed as helpless and needs sympathy for the viewers.

Further reading links:

8

Jamie Brewer

Show Spotlight: American Horror Story

Disability: Down's Syndrome

Model, actress and active member within the Down’s Syndrome community, Jamie Brewer has been shining the spotlight on Down’s Syndrome with positivity and showing exactly why people should accept such disabilities, especially within the media, and why disabled actors deserve the same opportunities to present their talents.

Making history on the New York catwalk in February 2015, Jamie Brewer was the first Down’s Syndrome model to walk at fashion week, thanks to designer Carrie Hammer. This was an incredible milestone for Brewer to be at the forefront of, and thus inspiring many others with disabilities.

As well as modelling, Jamie has also been getting a strong reputation for her acting within the television series “American Horror Story”. Playing a range of characters, which included some challenging narratives, the series helped to showcase her acting ability and versatility.

Further reading links:

Jamie Brewer
9

Robert David Hall

Show Spotlight: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Disability: Double Leg Amputee

Robert David Hall

Robert David Hall is a disabled actor who is best known for his character on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” television series. Being a double leg amputee in real life, David Hall plays the character of a medical examiner called AI Robbins.

Not always a double leg amputee, Robert David Hall was severely burned in 1978 from a car accident. After several months in a burn unit and double leg amputation, he now walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs.

“A committed disability advocate, Hall has used his position to raise awareness of those issues that impact the quality of life for people with disabilities and recently joined the board of directors of the National Organization on Disability”

Further reading links:

10

Lauren Potter

Show Spotlight: Glee

Disability: Down's Syndrome

Taking on the character of Becky Jackson on Fox’s musical comedy show “Glee”, Lauren Potter was born with Down’s Syndrome and is helping to increase the awareness for people to look at an individual’s skills rather than their disability or health condition.

“Playing Becky on Glee was SO amazing. I had so much fun over the last six years. It was fun being so spunky and funny, but I also got to do some really dramatic and sometimes even sad scenes. Everyone in my Glee family was so nice and supportive. Because of Glee, I've gotten to do so many amazing things, and I've gotten to meet so many amazing people and speak out about things that are important”

Although Lauren has brought plenty of positive connotations for “Glee”, the show has also received quite a lot of negative reviews as well. Lauren’s co-star Kevin McHale plays a character called Artie who is in a wheelchair yet he doesn’t actually use a wheelchair in real life. This just shows the negative impact that casting non-disabled actors for a disabled role can have, even though Lauren Potter has brought a great amount of disability awareness to the show.

Further reading links:

Lauren Potter
11

Liam Bairstow

Show Spotlight: Coronation Street

Disability: Down's Syndrome

Encouraging actors with disabilities to follow their dreams, Liam Bairstow is most known for landing his role as Alex Warner on ITV’s “Coronation Street”. Born with Down’s Syndrome, Liam has had a major part to play when it comes to changing people’s perception of Down’s Syndrome and acceptance of actors with disabilities within television.

Making British history in 2015 for his role on “Coronation Street”, Liam Bairstow was the first actor with Down’s Syndrome to be cast in a British television soap and is certainly one to watch out for!

Further reading links:

12

Lisa Hammond

Show Spotlight: Eastenders

Disability: Pseudoachondroplasia (Restricted Growth) and Joint Hypermobility

Born with Pseudoachondroplasia (Restricted Growth) and Joint Hypermobility, Lisa Hammond is best known for her character Donna Yates on the BBC’s “Eastenders” series.

Hammond has made an incredible achievement for raising the awareness for Restricted Growth and Joint Hypermobility disabilities, although she has also sadly come under quite a lot of criticism for the role as well. Although Lisa is often see in a wheelchair in real life, she doesn’t always need to be in it… which led to one of the episodes of Eastenders featuring Donna Yates standing up and out of her wheelchair, which resulted in quite a stir in the media.

“Lisa, who says she will walk in a scene if she feels able, added: 'But if I can’t or pain levels are bad then I’ll use my chair. I’ve been shouted at. I’ve had people say, "Oi, why are you in a chair when you were walking on EastEnders last night?”

Although negative, the media attention which Hammond received should hopefully make people realise that not all disabilities are as they appear and just because someone might sometimes need a wheelchair, doesn’t mean they need to be in a wheelchair 24/7.

Further reading links:

The Employment of Disabled Actors Within Television


Disabled actors getting cast for a key television role because of their acting ability rather than their disability is the talking point and mission behind many disabled rights organisations.

Although the proportion of the employment of disabled actors within television has increased quite considerably the last few years, there's still a long way to go. There's still plenty of cases where able-bodied actors are being cast for disabled roles, rather than disabled actors. This is particularly evident in Hollywood films, however is still very evident in television as well. Take a look at the below mini infographic which helps put this matter into perspective.

Sources used for infographic:

Actors with disabilities

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