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The disabled acting community works to end of decades of 'invisibility'

As Michael J Fox embraces his Parkinson's for a comedic return to television, the disabled acting community works towards the end of decades of 'invisibility'

The affable Mitte won his breakthrough role on AMC's Breaking Bad in 2007. Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images/AFP
The affable Mitte won his breakthrough role on AMC's Breaking Bad in 2007. Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images/AFP

As Michael J Fox embraces his Parkinson's for a comedic return to television, the disabled acting community works towards the end of decades of 'invisibility.'

Television drama is all about make-believe - but the days of making us believe that people with disabilities are invisible or don't exist may soon be winding down.

Grass-roots activism by Hollywood unions to write more disabled roles and open up the audition process, a growing awareness that real-life people with disabilities give such characters greater authenticity, plus the electrifying recent news that the beloved actor Michael J Fox is returning to the small screen despite his Parkinson's disease - have re-energised both the debate and thespian hopes.

In August, NBC signed Fox - who endeared himself to the world in Family Ties (1982-1989), the Back to the Future movie trilogy (1985-1990) and Spin City (1996-2000) - to star in a new comedy series, loosely based on his life, to premiere in the autumn of next year. In an incredible testament to his popularity, the network inked a 22-episode commitment without seeing so much as a script or a pilot. Fox, 51, credits his return to new drugs that help him control the tics that come with Parkinson's.

"I am so thrilled about Fox," says RJ Mitte, 20, the disabled advocate and charismatic rising star of the award-winning AMC series Breaking Bad. Born with cerebral palsy, he typifies the drive and desire it takes to break in to show business if you're not Fox with a platinum CV. "I think he will open tremendous doors for the disabled acting community."

But for lesser lights and emerging acting talent with disabilities, there are some daunting statistics to overcome to gain a toehold in the television arena.

The United Nations estimates there are 650 million people in the world living with a disability. In the US alone, there are 56 million Americans with disabilities who remain virtually invisible in media.

To put this into perspective, the 20 per cent of Americans between the ages of 5 and 64 who live with a disability are represented by fewer than two per cent of characters on television. Even more dispiriting, only one-half of one per cent of words spoken on TV are spoken by a person with a disability.

Making a living doing so can be impossible. Screen Actors Guild (SAG) research also indicates that 56 per cent of background performers with disabilities earn less than US$1,000 (Dh3,670) each year in film and TV.

Despite existing producer/union policies of non-discrimination, more than one-third of people with disability say they encountered discrimination - not being cast for a role or being refused an audition due to their disabilities.

The problem is hardly unique to North American television. In the UK, the disabled performer Lisa Hammond (Grange Hill, Psychoville) said "put 'crips' in your scripts" in an open letter she wrote to the UK industry in August.

"The best representation is a hands-off one," she wrote. "The character with the disability does not have to have a story written around that disability. It is their human stories/problems that are the juicy and dramatic parts of their lives."

What appears to be turning the tide - or at least making transformative waves in favour of access, inclusion and accuracy for the disabled - is the ambitious I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities) campaign launched three years ago by the Performers with Disabilities Tri-Union Committee of the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Actors' Equity Association.

"In the 21st century, media is the world's common cultural environment. Society's values and priorities are expressed and reflected in film, television, theatre, news and music. If you aren't seen and heard, you are invisible," says the actor and tri-union committee chairman Robert David Hall (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), the only disabled actor on primetime network TV. "I AM PWD will awaken the general public to the lack of inclusion and universal access for people with disabilities by uniting with a network of industry, labour, community and government allies."

Adam Moore, the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Director of SAG-AFTRA, adds: "If you don't see your family or what you look like or your experience reflected in the fictional environments - and more increasingly the real environments in reality television - if you don't see yourself reflected there, it reinforces this idea that you may not have the same place at the table of society that other people do."

Historically, two of the earliest depictions of disability on TV were almost novelties - Ironside (1967-1975) with Raymond Burr as a detective in a wheelchair and Longstreet (1971-1972) with James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator with a dog and a cane - with both roles played by able-bodied actors.

Moore now encourages productions to embrace non-specific casting. For a judge, for example, any actor - regardless of gender, disability or ethnicity - should be allowed to try out for the part so long as they can portray the gravitas required by the role.

Much as ensemble shows paved a path for Americans of colour in the 1970s and 1980s, it was an ensemble comedy - The Facts of Life (1979-1988) - that gave us the actress Geri Jewell, the first person with a real-life disability (cerebral palsy) to have a recurring role on a primetime series, says the pop culture professor Robert J Thompson of Syracuse University in New York.

"In the big picture, there are not a lot of these portrayals," says Thompson. "For the most part, if you look at the history of hit shows on television, none of these kinds of characters appear."

One of the more recent industry report cards - the annual Where We Are on TV report issued by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for 2011-2012, reveals that of 647 regular characters on network primetime television shows, only five (less than one per cent) portray disabilities.

The list includes: Hugh Laurie (House, uses a cane), Kevin McHale (Glee, in a wheelchair); Cloris Leachman (Raising Hope, portrays Alzheimer's); Max Burkholder (Parenthood, portrays Asperger's syndrome) and Robert David Hall (CSI, uses prosthetic legs). Of the five, Hall is the only one who is actually disabled. This season, on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, a character became an amputee.

On cable channels, however, the picture is brighter, with 10 regular and four recurring characters with disabilities, including Peter Dink-lage, who won an Emmy for his magnificent portrayal of the clever dwarf Tyrion on Game of Thrones.

Despite the discouraging numbers of the past, optimism is growing.

"It seems to have exploded in two ways," says the amputee actor Anita Hollander, who chairs the I AM PWD steering committee. "Many more characters with disabilities are showing up. And more performers with disabilities are showing up as well - although not as many as we'd like, because a lot of these characters who are showing up are not played by performers with disabilities.

"But on both sides of the coin, we are seeing a lot more happening than we've ever seen before and it was pretty bleak in the past."

Newer series such as Perception (Eric McCormack, a neuroscientist with schizophrenia), Touch (David Mazouz, a mute boy) and Switched at Birth (Katie Leclerc, a deaf teenager) have also introduced characters with disabilities.

"But people will not watch a show in the millions, episode after episode, for empathy or for sympathy," cautions Thompson. Prying the door open wider for the disabled will depend on superb performers and engaging storylines. "But if anybody is able to jam a foot into that door, all the way up to the knee or the thigh - Michael J Fox is the guy who can do it."

RJ Mitte

Disability: Cerebral palsy

Breakout role: Walter White Jr ("Flynn") on Breaking Bad

Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, this talented 20-year-old moved with his family six years ago to Hollywood, where he played smaller extras roles in the Disney series Hannah Montana. Thanks to acting lessons and training with his enthusiastic talent manager Addison Witt, who also has a form of cerebral palsy, the affable Mitte won his breakthrough role on AMC's Breaking Bad in 2007. In real life, he worked hard in therapy to overcome the need for crutches and to speak more clearly — but on the series, his character relies on crutches and slurs his speech a bit.

 

Marlee Matlin

Disability: deafness

Breakout roles: the janitor Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God; many TV roles

This car dealer's daughter from Morton Grove, Illinois, 47, lost all hearing in her right ear and 80 per cent of the hearing in her left ear at the age of 18 months. She taught herself how to read and speak phonetically. With her pluck, deafness didn't stop her from winning an Oscar and Golden Globe as best actress for her romantic star turn opposite William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God (1986). Her Emmy-nominated TV appearances include: Seinfeld, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Practice.

Robert David Hall

Disability: double amputee (legs)

Breakout role: coroner Dr Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

This 64-year-old is so convincing in his forensics role that most viewers aren't even aware that Hall had to have both of his legs amputated after an eighteen-wheeler lorry crushed his car in 1978; the exploding gas tank also caused burns to more than 65 per cent of his body. A prominent advocate for disabled Americans, he now uses prosthetic legs. This native of East Orange, New Jersey, has also appeared in the movies Starship Troopers and The Negotiator and the TV series The West Wing and LA Law.

 

This fall, the number of American broadcast series regulars with a disability fell to four characters, compared to five in 2011 and six in 2010 — making people with disabilities only 0.6 per cent of all regular prime time scripted shows, according to GLAAD's new Where We Are On TV report, released last month (October).

"ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox each have one character with a disability while The CW has none. Following the season premiere of ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Dr Arizona Robbins is now an amputee. CBS has a character on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation who uses prosthetic legs, NBC features a character with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, on Parenthood and a character on Fox's Glee uses a wheelchair," states the report.

"There is still a lot of work left to do," says Adam Moore, Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Director of SAG-AFTRA. "We are confident that the powerful combination of audiences demanding a greater level of inclusion, the ever growing pool of highly qualified talent and the industry's commitment to our shared responsibility to create content that reflects the American Scene will yield positive results in the seasons ahead."