In recent weeks, R.J. Mitte of Breaking Bad has been positively highlighted the news, not only for his role in co-presenting at the upcoming Paralympics in Rio, but also leveraging his presence to advocate for an increased presence of Americans with Disabilities within the media. With an active effort, Mitte believes "If we can make this happen, we will in turn help change attitudes towards disability."
R.J. Mitte is best known for his role as Walter in the AMC series Breaking Bad. Like the character in the show, he also has cerebral palsy. Diagnosed at age three, Mitte used braces and crutches through most of his childhood. Through exercise and determination, he was able to move on from any assistive devices by the time he was a teenager. Embracing his disability, Mitte worked with his agent to find roles where he could leverage his cerebral palsy; leading to his audition in Breaking Bad. Mitte captured the hearts with his portrayal and was awarded the Harold Russell Award as well as named by the Screen Actors Guild, the spokesman for actors with disabilities. In addition, Mitte is currently a representative of the "Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers with Disabilities" and a celebrity ambassador for "United Cerebral Palsy." Impressive and well deserved accomplishments. With his upcoming role starting September 7th in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Mitte is in a unique position to help raise awareness about and change global attitudes regarding disability representation.
Considering 20% of the population within the United States is disabled, there is a weak representation within media. In a recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, 95% of all actors who portray individuals with disabilities are actually able-bodied actors. The white paper released by the Ruderman Foundation brings perspective to inclusion and diversity within the media. However, much like the workplace, after the Ruderman Foundation surveyed hundreds of actors, agents and producers with disabilities that the perception of individuals with disabilities was negative and subject to preconceived biases. Through casting, the media reinforces the stigmas attached to people with disabilities.
The media frenzy surrounding the "Oscars so White" campaign, shed light on diversity within the entertainment industry and inadvertently opened the conversation regarding the role of individuals with disabilities within the entertainment industry. According to GLAAD's, We Are On TV report, characters with disabilities on television programming dropped from 1.4% to .9%. 98% of disabled roles were presented as the villain or as a negative stereotype and of those roles only less than 1% were casted with actual disabled actors. GLAAD proposed within the report, that a positive portrayal of same-sex relationships within media have led to greater acceptance and support. GLAAD hypothesized that if the same method was conveyed with Americans with Disabilities, audiences would have a similar portrayal as with same-sex marriages.
According to the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, 2200 actors self-identified as persons with disabilities with Actors Access. The Director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, Howard Sherman, stated that, "Playing disability is a considered a technical skill for an actor, and casting directors and producers prefer to seek non-disabled actors with long track records." Able-bodied actors can listen, research, empathize and can imagine disability, but cannot capture the complete role without direct experience. As more disabled performers, such as R.J. Mitte, become more vocal, individuals with disabilities as well as their abilities will become more visible to producers and directors.
Television shows such as Speechless, Episodes, Orange is the New Black and Glee have roles specifically written roles for individuals with disabilities, however, each of these roles were casted with able-bodied individuals. Hit movies such as Charlize Theron in Mad Max and John Hawkes in 'The Sessions' illustrated individuals with disabilities within their respective roles, but again casted with able-bodied individuals. Within the theatre, roles for individuals with disabilities in such Broadway successes as The Glass Menagerie, Wicked, and The Cripple of Inishmaan have been casted with able-bodied individuals as opposed to those with a disability. By an excluding those individuals with disabilities, not representing the their respective roles, does it lead to an inaccurate and biased portrayal of the role?
Not all roles of individuals with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors. FX’s anthology series “American Horror Story,” features characters with disabilities played by those with disabilities. Peter Bergs' science fiction film, Battleship embraced diversity with a plethora of characters who were Wounded Warriors, Americans with Disabilities and Veterans who served on the actual ships showcased in the movie. In a very unique documentary, Michael Barnett, directed a film called "Becoming Bulletproof which followed a group of all disabled adults from a non-profit, Zeno Mountain Farm, producing and acting in an independently filmed western. The individuals with the film have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy. Although most of the actors struggle through their day to day activities and fight pain through their efforts, they show their true courage in the making of the film.
An individual with a disability looking for a new job faces similar stereotypes as someone looking for an acting role within the United States. Even though a person may possess all of the skills, at times they may be overlooked due to a disability. A recruiter may see a gap in employment or a manager may have a stereotype about their ability, without understanding that a slight accommodation would be willing to allow an individual with a disability to perform equally or exceed the expectations as someone who is able-bodied. At NTI, our clients have found that individuals with disabilities provide loyalty, experience, and the confidence necessary to build their brand and customer service. Like R.J. Mitte, the workplace industry needs more advocates to support this minority group and increase awareness on the effectiveness of Americans with Disabilities.
As an endnote, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, just released a statement calling for diversity and inclusion concerning gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Why was disability excluded? One in every 5, or 60 Million Americans has a disability. They are the minority group in the United States. In order to portray life within the media as well as develop a more effective and inclusive workforce within our country, the media must influence and help change the stereotypes to change our world.
Writer Bio: Michael T. Sanders is the Marketing Director at NTI and Speaker, with over 20 years experience who places individuals with disabilities back into the workplace. Additionally, he is a Diversity Advocate focusing on Americans with Disabilities and the originator of the Into the Streets program to help connect over 80,000 individuals with volunteer groups and has been implemented in Colleges and Universities nationwide.