I fancy myself a fairly open-minded person. I’ve never had a problem with race, I was ahead of the curve on gay rights and I genuinely try to be sensitive toward groups that may be marginalized in our society. But for some reason, this has never been the case when it comes to individuals that have mental and physical disabilities. I have always felt uncomfortable with the subject, especially when the disability is very severe and apparent. Beyond that, I can be extremely insensitive about it too. I’m not proud of it and I’m not sure why, but that’s the truth.
It may be the fact that I have not gone out of my way to expose myself to the more, and the media as a whole tends to often pity these people, rather than just show them as normal folks with special circumstances. Saturday evening’s panel looked to take that fact head on. The panel featured a number of different people who have close ties to the disability community, as well as Josh Twelves, an actor that was born with Arthrogryposis who featured in Ephraim’s Rescue and Unaccompanied Minors. Twelves was great, answering questions and giving advice to fellow disabled actors. He was one of those people who was obviously put on this Earth to break the barriers, like my own. I did take issue, however, with the way he was treated by other panelists and audience members. It comes off as condescending, in my eyes, to break into applause every time someone mentions his name. He is an adult, a hard-working entertainer, who is living his dream. That’s cause enough to respect him, and I think he is smart enough to see through the masked-pity applause he constantly was receiving. I think, more than anything that was said at the panel, the way we reacted to Twelves spoke loudly about how far away we are in regards of our disposition toward disabled people.
Part of the way through, RJ Mitte came into the room and joined the panel. Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, and also played a character with the same handicap on Breaking Bad, brought a new breath (and about 200 more audience members, growing the attendance tenfold) to the discussion. He looked shocked about the way the other panel members were talking about the underrepresentation of disabled performers. During the Q&A, a panel attendee, who has ADHD, asked about how he could overcome his disability and get into acting.
“I think the best way is how most other people do it,” Mitte said, without even talking about the disability part of the question. “Find extra work. Learn how film works, where the camera sets up, how the actors prepare … that’s the best way to get into it.” Exactly what people with (or without) disabilities need to hear: They are capable human beings that, with hard work, can do anything.