I thought it apt to do my first Disability in Pop Culture post on the most visible character with a disability on television right now: Artie Abrams from Glee. And no, I didn’t know he had a last name until I looked it up just now.
As we all know, Artie’s portrayed by Kevin McHale who does not have a disability in real life. When I talk about my passion for writing characters with disabilities for all mediums: film, TV, plays and books, people usually bring up this character and ask what I think about casting non-disabled actors for disabled roles. Does it bother me in general? Yes it does. Does it bother me that Kevin McHale got the role of Artie? No it does not…anymore.
Of course when Glee first premiered all the buzz around this character and the actor cast in the part centered on that fact that he didn’t have a disability. Honestly, I wasn’t really fazed because frankly that’s par for the course when it comes to casting in Hollywood. Of course, it didn’t escape my notice and I would have loved if the casting directors had tried harder to search for an actor who could sing and was also disabled, just like the character. For comparison, I was absolutely overjoyed when I found out that R.J. Mitte, who portrays Walter White, Jr. on Breaking Bad really did have CP, (who’ll get his own post in short order). But the bottom line is, if we want to see ourselves portrayed on the national stage in any capacity we will have to be the ones producing, writing, casting and acting the parts. Will it be a heck of a long road, with seemingly impossible odds? Hell yes. But nothing worth fighting for ever came easy, right? And I don’t think of that as just an empty platitude.
Now to the actual storylines that Artie is given on the show.
So far I’ve pretty much liked what this character’s been given to do. Much has been said and lamented over, about the fact that Artie would give anything to walk. He doesn’t really take any joy or pride in being disabled. I can’t speak for all disabled individuals, so I’ll just speak for me from my experience. I’m 27 and have been disabled my entire life. Being a teen that happens to be disabled is hard, really hard. Being 27 and disabled is hard, not as hard as being a teen and disabled, but hard none the less. Are there days where I wish I could walk unassisted? You betcha there is. Not the most joyful and prideful answer, but it is the most truthful answer. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t find a person like me (same cognitive abilities, ambitions, and dreams who also had CP) until I was 19 and in college. Until then my experiences with other people with disabilities was limited to those who were of lower cognitive function and were in Special Ed classes.
So imagine if it took me 19 years of my life to find someone like me, 24 years to join a group comprised of professional women with disabilities who have given me hope for my future, and up to and through today navigating all the myriad of issues associated with disabilities- what it must be like to distil all that into portraying a character of 17 who hasn’t been disabled all his life, by an actor who doesn’t have firsthand knowledge? It’s tricky and messy, and of course there are going to be some missteps. I’m willing to give the writers some breathing room.
I particularly liked the episode titled ‘Wheels’. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it so I can’t speak for it directly right now, but it does stand out as one of the better episodes to me.
Regarding last night’s episode, Artie had a small but on point little speech about feeling for the first time that he was capable of achieving something independently of others and how great that felt. I remember that feeling well. It was when I first learned to drive and got my license. And come to think of it, my example is universal to the teen experience and really is not dependent on whether I’m in a wheelchair or not, is it? Although it is more laborious a process, the end result is the same: the freedom to drive...
…and the awesome power of figuring out who you are, finding your tribe who’ll become your friends and mentors, and finding your place in the world and being damn proud of it.
All of which I have faith they’ll explore in due time with Artie. He is only a teen after all. The journey is all about discovery.