The small screen is making big leaps for inclusion with shows starring actors who have disabilities.
For most of history, Hollywood has treated disability like a story gimmick, an attribute to assign to a character when the show or movie needed to teach a lesson to other characters about being better people. An actor without a disability almost always played the role, earning praise for playing “the disability” so convincingly (Rain Man, I Am Sam, The Other Sister, Radio … the list is long).
For the disability community, seeing this kind of representation on screen has been demoralizing and confusing—why can’t stories about solid human characters with real disabilities learning to live life exist in the screen narrative? Where are the roles for actors who have disabilities?
The good news is that the old way of portraying disability and people with special needs is starting to look demoralizing and confusing to everybody else, too. Hollywood is catching on, and with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, there’s a new age of modern screen stories unfolding right now. People with disabilities are landing prime parts, and the overall representation of people with special needs is getting more realistic, complex, and authentic. Let’s take a look at some of the shows getting it right. A little heads-up: Some of these shows deal with adult situations, so not all of them are family-friendly.
Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix hit follows the story of his bestselling memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. This dark comedy doesn’t shy away from the truth, unlike O’Connell did for many years. Both the memoir and streaming series center around O’Connell’s goal to “rewrite” his identity by allowing friends and colleagues to assume his limp resulted from an accident rather than cerebral palsy. As Variety notes, “Special tackles timeless issues with equal parts compassion and wit.”
- The Politician
Ryan Murphy, the creator of inclusion supershow Glee, launched this dark comedy about high school political races with a diverse cast, including Ryan J. Haddad, an actor with cerebral palsy playing a character who has cerebral palsy. In Men’s Health, Haddad said The Politician didn’t feel the need to highlight his disability.
“I think as a disabled person, for me, [the show] was a reflection of my reality,” he said. “Yeah, I have cerebral palsy, but I don’t feel like I struggle with it. I don’t feel like it’s a cloud over me. This is just who I am, it is all I have known, as I am sure it is the same for you.”
It took a minute for the real star of this Jason Bateman binge-worthy drama to show up. It’s Tuck, the Blue Cat bar and hotel employee, played by Evan George Vourazeris, an up-and-coming actor with Down syndrome. Bateman saw Vourazeris’s audition and hand-picked him for the role. No spoiler alerts here, but even though Ozark has wrapped, Vourazeris has four new films under his belt and is currently filming three more.
- Crip Tales
This mini-mini-series from British genius Mat Fraser (His Dark Materials, American Horror Story) features six 12-minute episodes written, directed, and starring actors with disabilities. Hailed as a groundbreaking achievement, Crip Tales presents a sometimes startling, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes funny, but always impressive look into the human experience through the eyes of people with special needs.
In an interview with Screen Rant, Fraser, who has a disability, said, “CripTales is super exciting. No, it’s not Hollywood, and they’re not big features; they’re small monologues. And finally, we’re being allowed to portray ourselves. I think the TV industry is realizing that in order to get more authentic disability characterization in stories, you need disabled writers [and performers].”
- Everything’s Going to Be Okay
Freeform media launched this family drama series in 2020, with a second season on the way in 2021. The premise involves Nicholas, a 20-something who must look after his two half-sisters after their father’s death. Kayla Cromer, who plays half-sister Matilda, has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the same as her character.
On a panel for Freeform, Cromer told audiences, “Honestly, people with a difference, we’re fully capable of portraying our own type, and we deserve that right. With so many changes in the industry right now, why not? Just give us our chance. Include us. We can do this.”
- Love on the Spectrum
Netflix’s endearing docuseries follows seven young people and two couples with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on one of the most extraordinary adventures of life: the quest for creating lasting love. Produced by social impact filmmaker Cian O’Clery, Love on the Spectrum aims to challenge common assumptions people make about ASD.
“We’re representing people who are very underrepresented in media,” O’Clery told The Wrap in an interview. “The number one thing I hope people will get from the series is that they’ll understand more about autism. We’re telling autistic stories via the lens of dating and relationships, but really, it’s about getting to know these people and understanding the diversity of autism and the fact that everyone is so different. It’s something you just can’t make assumptions about.”
- The Speed Cubers
Not a TV show but still a fascinating 40-minute documentary short, The Speed Cubers profiles two young men making waves in the world of speedcubing—that is, solving a classic Rubik’s cube in the shortest amount of time possible. One of the competitors is 17-year-old Max Park, who has autism spectrum disorder. Max’s idol and, later, staunch rival is Australian speedcubing legend Feliks Zemdegs, the reigning champion. As the two men become friends, the documentary reveals the sport’s quirky underworld and the heartbreaking tenderness of their care for each other in a very competitive world. “Tissues will be required,” reports Mashable.