Examining Cerebral Palsy on TV: An Evolution

cerebral palsy

RJ Mitte, Keah Brown, Maysoon Zayid and Micah Fowler share thoughts on how cerebral palsy is represented on TV, from ‘The Facts of Life’ to ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Speechless’ and beyond.

Happy World CP Day! WCPD, celebrated every October 6, advocates for the 17 million people worldwide who have cerebral palsy. As part of its awareness campaign, World CP Day focuses on six key areas people have said are their biggest barriers: quality of life, medical access, civil rights, public awareness, education and contribution.

At the same time, society is influenced by more than bureaucracy and political decisions. It’s also influenced by culture: stories, images and art in all its forms. To celebrate those of us living with cerebral palsy, I’m taking a look at one of western society’s favorite pastimes — watching television — and examining how the depictions of CP have evolved.

As far as I can tell, there have been four television shows featuring characters living with cerebral palsy: The Facts of Life, Deadwood, Breaking Bad and Speechless. Two sitcoms, a western and a crime drama — difficult to compare to one another but still existing on a continuum, with each character building on the next.

1. Cousin Geri in The Facts of Life

cerebral palsy on TV

Geri Jewell as Geri Tyler in ‘The Facts of Life’ / Columbia Pictures Television

“Cousin Geri” Tyler (The Facts of Life) was the first-ever character with cerebral palsy written into a TV show, and Geri Jewell was the first actor with cerebral palsy cast in a primetime role. Cousin Geri made her initial appearance on TV screens in 1980, only a few years after disability rights had been legislated.

When Geri enters the doorway of Eastland School, the audience gets an easily digestible image: she walks with a visible limp, but her smile and T-shirt are literal billboards. She’s very much a 1980s sitcom character: frothy, light, quick with the punchline and self-deprecating humor, landing the jokes even through the canned laugh track. When Natalie tells Geri her mother has a “touch of the arthritis,” Geri responds with, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” And when Tootie asks if cerebral palsy hurts, Geri says merrily, “Only when I spill hot coffee on myself!” Bah-duh-bum.

In retrospect the humor does seem a bit dated, but it’s important to remember that, at the time, Facts was known to be unafraid of tackling difficult subjects head-on in a way that wouldn’t alienate its core audience.

Cousin Geri is a recurring character. Over four seasons, she made a total of 11 appearances.

2. Jewel in Deadwood

cerebral palsy on TV

Geri Jewell as Jewel in ‘Deadwood’ / Home Box Office

Then there’s Jewel, from HBO’s Deadwood, a western that ran from 2004 until it was cancelled in 2006. Jewel, sometimes called “The Gimp,” cleans the Gem Saloon, a bar and brothel owned by Al Swearengen (played to creepy perfection by Ian McShane). Jewel is notable for a few reasons: she isn’t afraid to mouth off to her boss (who murders people for less), and she’s the one who cleans up his messes — shrugging off the usual association of disability with fragility. The script’s recognition of Jewel as a realized person (with a separate life away from the camera) is the move forward.

Jewel is a recurring character, appearing 23 times over two years. And if she looks familiar, she should — she’s played by the same actor who played Cousin Geri.

3. Walt Jr. in Breaking Bad

cerebral palsy on TV

Bryan Cranston as Walter White and RJ Mitte as Walt Jr. in ‘Breaking Bad’ / American Movie Classics

Next is Breaking Bad, with RJ Mitte playing the son of the lead character/antihero, Walter White. Junior is positioned as his father’s opposite, from his early alignment with good cop Hank, to his fascination with breakfast (and all its wholesome associations), and it is this grappling with his identity that I want to focus on. Not only does it echo a traditional teenage narrative, but when Junior changes his name to Flynn (and demands that his family respect that change) it signals a deepening understanding of the agency of disabled people and that Junior has the self-confidence to take control of his life.

Junior is main cast, appearing in 52 episodes over five seasons.

4. Micah in Speechless

cerebral palsy on TV

Minnie Driver as Maya, John Ross Bowie as Jimmy, JJ DiMeo as Micah, Kyla Kenedy as Dylan in ‘Speechless’ / American Broadcasting Company

Finally, there is JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) from Speechless.

JJ is the eldest child of Jimmy and Maya, brother to Dylan and Ray. The series begins with the family moving to a dilapidated house in a good school district so that JJ (Jimmy Junior) can have access to better programs.

Almost immediately there is an obvious evolution in characterization of cerebral palsy. In the second episode, “N-e-New A-i-Aide,” JJ insists on literally choosing his voice by picking Kenneth as his aide. Beyond that the series itself breaks ground by centering on JJ: interweaving the specific experiences he would have with cerebral palsy into the usual sitcom experiences. Pretty much every episode deals with a unique and political aspect of disability, from JJ navigating dating to being a source of inspiration porn and wanting to participate in certain coming-of-age rituals that need to be made accessible.

JJ is a main cast member, appearing in 23 episodes (and counting).

Conversations with RJ Mitte, Micah Fowler, Keah Brown and Maysoon Zayid

For me, it’s important to address the continuum of representation of cerebral palsy through television, to show both how I think it could be improved, as well as how it’s progressed. So I had conversations with two brilliant actors who have represented cerebral palsy on television, as well as a writer and a comedian leading efforts to increase representation.

Note: the conversations below were conducted individually over email and condensed for flow.

cerebral palsy on TV

RJ Mitte speaks at BUILD Series London on January 24, 2017. Photo by Tabatha Fireman / Getty Images

RJ Mitte told me a bit about how his cerebral palsy informs his performances.

RM: People have an appetite for real characters with real stories. I find disabilities always have extraordinary stories, so it was just a matter of time. But when it comes to creating characters, I just use the whole space and live in that moment.

Could you tell me what a workday is like for you and how you accommodate your cerebral palsy?could y

RM: My work and job are different almost every day. My CP is a big part of my life, but I’m just maintaining my body, which everyone does, disabled or not.

cerebral palsy on TV

Micah Fowler as JJ DiMeo in ‘Speechless.’ Photo by Richard Cartwright / ABC via Getty Images

Could you tell me if you have suggestions on how JJ should act, in terms of making it more realistic? Also, if it’s not too personal, could you tell me a story of hearing fan feedback about what it’s like to see themselves on-screen?

MF: Examples of input given are suggestions about how someone of JJ’s ability level would tackle different tasks, such as dressing, using hands to manipulate objects in general. JJ has less dexterity in his hands than I do; therefore, he has more difficulty manipulating objects with his fingers. I have to keep this in mind when picking up things or using my hands to do things. I also have given suggestions on therapy exercises that someone of JJ’s ability level would do.

Not only does Speechless have many actors with disabilities working in different episodes; we also have hired writers, a director, consultants and even some administration staff from the disabled community. I love that we are seeing this gain traction in other television shows and media platforms.

The way Speechless is impacting lives, helping to change perspective and break the stereotyping of people with disabilities, is just awesome! It’s renewed dreams and given hope to people navigating life with a disability and, equally as important, given new perspective to millions of those not directly affected by a disability.

cerebral palsy on TV

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While the characters, from Cousin Geri to Jewel to Junior and finally JJ, show a progression in nuance and depth, and each allows a bit more interiority, so far there is a lack of racial diversity in disability portrayals on-screen.

There are experiences and stories unique to disabled Black, Indigenous and NBPOC as well as our LGBTQIA family that need to be seen, particularly given our current social climate. This lack of diversity has been lamented by many, including Vilissa Thompson, creator of the Twitter hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite.

Two more individuals actively addressing this issue are writer Keah Brown and comedian Maysoon Zayid, who shared some ideas with Crixeo.

cerebral palsy on TV

Keah Brown via Twitter

Keah Brown is a Black woman who writes candidly about her experiences with cerebral palsy for places like Teen Vogue and Cliché Mag.

I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what audiences are missing regarding your experience as a disabled Black woman. What are we not seeing?

KB: We aren’t seeing Black women and other women of color. We aren’t seeing gender-nonconforming disabled people or any disabled folks in the LGBTQIA community. What we see on TV is very limited and it’s unfair because it’s not a proper representation of the community as a whole.

I know a lot of people attach negative qualities to the word “disabled” and don’t want it to be a part of their identity… Then there are people who consider “Disability” to be a political part of their identity. Can you tell me if and how writing about your experiences with cerebral palsy has been liberating for you?

KB: I’m liberated in that talking about it so openly and honestly helped get me to #DisabledAndCute. In talking about it, I learned that I could be okay with it and myself, and I’ve learned so much about myself outside of it. My CP does not define me. It is only part of who I am, but ignoring it makes it seem like I’m ashamed of it. I refuse to be ashamed any longer.

cerebral palsy on TV

Maysoon Zayid via Facebook

Maysoon Zayid is a stand-up comedian whose act went viral when it became a TED Talk.

Maysoon, given how much you advocate for better representation, how do you see the next inroads being made? What do you hope “characters with cerebral palsy” will get to do next?

MZ: Two percent of all the roles on TV are disabled, and 95% of those roles are played by non-disabled actors. It’s a huge problem considering that we are 20% of the world’s population.

The next goal is to mainstream disability in media. That means we need to see disabled news anchors. We need to see disabled characters on sitcoms and dramas where the story does not revolve around their disability. I’m developing a TV show that I will star in. My character has cerebral palsy, but that is not what the show is about.

cerebral palsy on TV

Maskot / Getty Images

Representation matters. Seeing yourself, or someone like you, on television screens means that you haven’t been erased from the narrative, that your stories are important enough to tell. I’m heartened that the depictions of cerebral palsy on-screen have evolved and become more nuanced, and I also want mainstream studios to diversify and bring other perspectives to my television screen. That is the next step. Entertainment has influence and can shine a light on systemic and structural inequalities that need addressing. That is what I hope can happen, anyway.

Afterward, who knows? end

 

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