Disabled people have been depicted in film and television for a while now. Whether it's a mental or physical disability, it's clear that the presence in fictional media has made a big impact. Sometimes they are portrayed in a serious way for the sake of storytelling, and other times they are used as comic relief. So the question is, is all of this okay?
Walter White Jr. (Cerebral Palsy) - Breaking Bad
We'll start off with a portrayal that basically hit the nail on the head. Walter Jr. has Cerebral Palsy. It doesn't play a major role on the show, but it's definitely noticeable. The great thing is that this character is played by an actor who actually has Cerebral Palsy, RJ Mitte.
I think a lot of shows should take a page out of Breaking Bad's book. Having disabled people play disabled people in film and television actually makes a lot of sense. This promotes the awareness of disabilities and makes the audience perceive it in the most appropriate way.
When you have a black character, do you cast a white person? Maybe back in the 1950s when a certain use of makeup was acceptable, but these days races portray their own races. The same goes with gender. So why not have disabled people play disabled characters?
Raymond Babbitt (Autism) - Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman did a great job at portraying this tragic character with Autism. The film gives the audience some insight into what the disorder is really all about. There are some serious downsides, but there are also even some advantages.
This a great example of a way of educating the audience on mental disorders like this. People can understand how difficult it can be for someone with the disorder and the people around them, while also teaching them a way to deal with it appropriately.
Abed Nadir (Aspergers) - Community
As an Aspie, I can say that Danny Pudi's portrayal of this character with Aspergers is pretty faithful. Danny might not actually have Aspergers, but he definitely did a great job.
Even though he is socially awkward and somewhat emotionally distant, there's a very human aspect to his character. While he values his friendship with the rest of the study group, he finds more comfort in manipulating his environment to resemble television. It's quite brilliant actually.
Even with all of this, you can definitely notice some personal growth he has throughout the show. He becomes better at talking to people, more supportive and even gets a girlfriend. He's someone I can relate to on a really personal level. Now let's look at how NOT to portray Aspergers Syndrome.
Sheldon Cooper (Aspergers) - The Big Bang Theory
I don't care how many times the creators deny it, this guy's got Aspergers coming out the wazoo. But instead of being a realistic character with genuine psychological issues, he's a caricature that is used as comedic relief. So, is this okay?
Don't get me wrong, I love The Big Bang Theory. I even have a Seasons 1-7 box set which I call "Bigby" and find Sheldon to be quite funny. But should he be? No one ever uses a depressed person as the comic relief, or someone who has lost the ability to walk. Except for Family Guy, but let's face it, it's Family Guy.
Forrest Gump (Intellectually Disabled) - Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump won Best Picture in 1994, but was it deserved? This film definitely gives a unique look into learning disorders with the beloved titular character. There's definitely something really fascinating about Tom Hanks's portrayal of such an interesting character.
Even with so many obstacles in his way, Forrest manages to triumph and becomes a hero in the eyes of the people around him. When he ran all over the USA, he had no idea how big of an impact it was having on people. He just felt like running and that's what he did.
Ralph Wiggum (???) - The Simpsons
Ralph Wiggum is perhaps the most timeless disabled character in the history of television. Everyone loves the little antics he always seems to get up to due to his "condition." I have to admit that the time he made a crayon and thumbtack sandwich had me in tears.
"Me fail English? That's unpossible."
We've always found him to be a funny character but is it really okay? I'm sure there are actually kids out there who have serious problems with learning and it's putting a lot of stress on the people around them. He might be funny, but is it really okay to make fun of stupid people?
This goes for a lot of films and television series that poke fun at people who are really stupid. If someone's stupid in real life, do we actually laugh at them, or do we just feel sorry for them? It's a good question, and I think we should all take some time to consider if this is all okay.
Maybe I'm looking into this too much. Maybe I'm not. Either way, I think it's definitely something that we should be thinking about. What is really the appropriate way of portraying disabled people?