27th August 2021
This week, when speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, screenwriter Jack Thorne took to the stage to discuss the treatment of those with disabilities in the TV industry. (If you don’t know the name Jack Thorne, you might be a bit more familiar with his work – he was the writer for Enola Holmes, His Dark Materials, and the film Wonder!)
One of the main topics he spoke about was how often we see able-bodied actors playing disabled roles, instead of actors who have those disabilities being chosen for the part. While those able-bodied actors might have done a good job – one third of the Lead Actor Oscars since 1988 have gone to actors who portrayed a disability that they didn’t have themselves – Jack Thorne makes the case that an actor who has intimate knowledge and experience of their disability would give a more accurate, and more emotional portrayal.
As a result of the unfair treatment of disabled actors, Jack Thorne is calling for the companies that commission and produce television shows to introduce disability quotas to ensure there is more diversity and accuracy on our TV screens.
While writing about his speech for The Guardian, he shared the thought that “if TV is not representative then it fails”. We couldn’t agree more, and so we’ve decided to pull together a list of some of our favourite actors with various disabilities who have done an incredible job of keeping us glued to the television.
Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy – Switched at Birth
Switched at Birth follows the story of two girls who were – you guessed it – switched at birth. Katie Leclerc’s character, Daphne Vasquez, and Katie herself, both have Meniere’s disease, leading them to be hard of hearing. Throughout the show, topics such as being discriminated against for hearing loss and pursuing relationships while living with the disease are explored.
Switched at Birth didn’t just stop at hiring one disabled actor to portray a disabled character – they show also stars Sean Berdy as Emmett Bledsoe, both of whom are deaf.
Gaten Matarazzo – Stranger Things
Gaten Matarazzo became a fast favourite for playing the loveable Dustin Henderson in Netflix’s wildly successful Stanger Things. In fact, the show wanted Gaten to play Dustin so much that they incorporated his disability - cleidocranial dysplasia – into the show.
Gaten has always been open about his disability, sharing to his Instagram story last year that he was about to undergo his fourth surgery for the condition, and urging his followers to find out more about it and support those with it.
RJ Mitte – Breaking Bad
RJ Mitte shot to fame with the success of Breaking Bad, where he played Walter White Jr. (or Flynn, as he asks to be called), the son of Walter and Skyler White. Both RJ and Flynn live with cerebral palsy, though Flynn often relies on crutches to get around, while RJ has stated that he doesn’t. Throughout the show, we see Flynn learning to drive, going to work and attending high school – he never lets his disability get in the way of living his life.
In a recent interview, RJ Mitte has announced his next role as a teenager with cerebral palsy who is determined to join his school’s wrestling team.
Lauren Potter – Glee
From 2009 to 2015, if you wanted to watch something cheesy and upbeat that you could sing along to, Glee was the answer. While Lauren Potter, who played Becky Jackson on the show, might not have spent much time singing, she made an impact as a fan favourite character for her hilarious quips and put-downs, as well as some emotional moments.
While at first the character of Becky isn’t shown to have many friends, she quickly rises through the ranks of high school to become Head Cheerleader and right-hand man to Coach Sylvester, who is later shown to have a sister who also has Down syndrome.
Cherylee Houston – Coronation Street
If you’re a fan of the soaps, you’ve probably already seen Cherylee Houston’s portrayal of Izzy Armstrong. Both Cherylee and Izzy are wheelchair users with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – a rare connective tissue disorder that Cherylee was diagnosed with at the age of 23.
Izzy is the first regular on Coronation Street to have a disability since 1993, but her character has had to take a step back since the start of the pandemic due to Cherylee having to shield for her safety. Coronation Street have been able to take instances from Cherylee’s real life to infuse Izzy’s character and story with life, bringing an accurate and much-needed portrayal of the life of disabled people during the pandemic to light.