The conversation around inclusive representation has taken a forefront, especially with trends like #OscarsSoWhite. However, the differently-abled community is still grossly underrepresented, with several such characters going to able-bodied actors– frequently referred to as ‘cripping up’. Indian Cinema has had characters with disabilities before, but they’ve rarely cast differently-abled actors in the roles or succeeded in sensitively portraying them.
Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah’s latest, Jalsa, stars Surya Kasibhatla, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy, as Ayush, Balan’s son with disabilities. Here are 10 other films and TV shows, from Sesame Street to Game of Thrones, featuring actors with disabilities:
1. ‘Sesame Street’: Linda Bove and Tarah Schaeffer
Sesame Street is a wildly popular show, with characters from it still part of pop-culture discourse. The show broke barriers when it cast actor Linda Bove as the character Allison who introduced children to sign language – the actor herself is deaf.
The show also gave her character a proper story arc, since she eventually became a series regular and even developed a romantic relationship with ‘Bob’. Sesame Street also featured a character Katie, who used a wheelchair. In the 1990s, Tarah Schaeffer joined the cast as well– she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta.
2. 'The Peanut Butter Falcon': Zack Gottsagen
The 2019 drama film The Peanut Butter Falcon follows Zak, a man with Down’s syndrome who runs away from the assisted living facility the State places him in to meet his hero and pursue his dream of becoming a wrestler.
Zack Gottsagen, who portrays Zak, was born to Shelley Gottsagen, who is a disability rights activist. She informed ABILITY Magazine that Zack was the first student with Down syndrome to become a part of the Palm Beach County school district.
3. 'Breaking Bad': RJ Mitte
RJ Mitte told Daily Orange that he remembers reading the casting call that landed him the role in Breaking Bad: “dark hair, big eyebrows and mild cerebral palsy”. Mitte played the role of Walter White Jr. for five seasons.
Walter ‘Flynn’ White Jr. is the son of the protagonist Walter White and has cerebral palsy which manifested as a speech difficulty and impaired motor control. Mitte cerebral palsy, however, doesn’t manifest the same way.
“When it comes to mannerisms and posturing, how I hold myself, how I hold my crutches….it’s finding where I could put subtleties in that and highlight (my performance,)” he told Indie Wire.
4. ‘Sex Education’: George Robinson
Differently-abled characters on-screen often fall into harmful stereotypes– their entire character arc is based around the disability or as something they want to ‘escape’, to list a few. George Robinson, who became a wheelchair user after he became quadriplegic after an injury, plays Sex Education’s first disabled character Isaac.
Talking about the role, Robinson told BBC, “The feedback I've got from within the disability community is that it's really refreshing to see someone who is so comfortable within themselves and not questioning their existence.”
He added that the show’s writers borrowed from his life experiences as well when they were writing the character of ‘Isaac’.
5. ‘Ramy’: Steve Way
What the writers of Sex Education did right, was to take the inclusivity on-screen behind the cameras as well. Steve Way, an actor and comedian with muscular dystrophy, said to Vulture, “Obviously, having a non-disabled actor play a disabled person’s role is bad, but I think the real problem is having a non-disabled writer write a disabled person’s role.”
Steve Way plays the role of Ramy’s best friend (mirroring real life) in the award-winning show Ramy. The duo, Ramy and Way carry the show forward with their marvellous acting chops and comedic timing.
6. ‘A Quiet Place’: Millicent Simmonds
John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic horror film A Quiet Place (and A Quiet Place 2) stars actor and deaf community rights activist Millicent Simmonds in one of the lead roles. Millicent’s character Regan becomes one of the main catalysts to the characters’ survival journey.
Talking to The Quint, Millicent had said, “If you are writing stories for deaf characters you need to do it the right way to make sure accommodations are in place, that there are ASL (American Sign Language) coaches hired, interpreters on set, that the stories are authentic.”
John Krasinski told IGN, "I didn't want a non-deaf actress pretending to be deaf. Most importunely though, because a deaf actress would help my knowledge and my understanding of the situations tenfold."
7. ‘Run’: Kiera Allen
Kiera Allen made her film debut with the Sarah Paulson-starrer Run which is one of the few times a person with a disability has been cast in a thriller. Not only that, Kiera’s character Chloe, who is a wheelchair user like Kiera, doesn’t fall into any done-and-dusted stereotypes about disabled characters.
Run directed by Aneesh Chaganty also portrays several scenes about issues with accessibility that disabled people face in real life, albeit with the raised stakes of Chloe trying to escape an overprotective guardian.
“I’ve had some really great conversations about accessibility, about Chloe, and how she flips the narrative of abuse of disabled people. She’s not a victim. She’s a hero,” Kiera told Firstpost. She added that it was refreshing that the mother (or the abuser in this case) isn’t shown as the able-bodied saviour, “The film doesn’t sympathise with her in that way.”
8. ‘Eternals’: Lauren Ridloff
The makers of Marvel’s Chloe Zhao-directorial Eternals made the choice to change some of the original characters to make the story more inclusive. Lauren’s character Makkari, a white able-bodied man in the comics, is a deaf woman of colour in the film.
Lauren Ridloff, who was born deaf, used to be an ASL teacher before she entered the world of films and has acted in the revamp of Children of a Lesser God and Walking Dead. The role of Makkari even made Lauren the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
About Makkari, Lauren said to Variety, “It was definitely life changing. And I hope that this has the same impact on different communities, people who have been marginalized or are underrepresented in this industry.”
9. ‘Special’: Ryan O’Connell
Ryan O’Connell stars as the lead in the show Special based on his memoir ‘I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves’ wherein he talks about his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy.
The show does bring a conversation about people with disabilities to the forefront but showrunner Ryan also ‘wanted to show the humanity in sex work’, as he tells Advocate, adding that intimacy (especially sexual intimacy) involving disabled and/or queer people is rare in media. To his credit, Special attempts to rectify that, and much more.
10. ‘Game of Thrones’: Peter Dinklage
Peter Dinklage’s character Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones wasn’t just loved by critics but also became an audience favourite for his charm, wit, and the sheer range with which he portrays emotions.
Dinklage, who won an Emmy Award for his role, appreciates the way his character is written for the show. He said in a statement, “Maybe I’m biased because sometimes I see people of my size- how they are represented in fantasies - it is always very comical.”
Dinklage who has achondroplasia has used his platform as a celebrity to advocate about social issues faced by people diagnosed with dwarfism.
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