What We Learned (About Disability, Activism and Breaking Bad) From RJ Mitte

RJ Mitte became famous playing Walter ‘Flynn’ White Jr in the hit TV series Breaking Bad, but he’s not just an actor – he’s also an activist. Like his character in Breaking Bad, RJ has cerebral palsy. It’s placed some hurdles in RJ’s path, from mobility to bullying, but hasn’t stopped him from acting, advocating for others – or even walking the runways of Milan for Vivienne Westwood. Last night, RJ Mitte spoke with candour – in conversation with Tom Ballard – about the challenges and triumphs in his life to date, and our capacity for change. Here are our takeaways from a thoughtful lecture and conversation.

1.

Language matters.

When we use the term ‘disabled people’, we put the disability front and centre. ‘Person with a disability’ foregrounds an individual’s humanity.

2. 

It’s important to share and listen to the experiences of those with disabilities, because disabilities provide unique prisms through which experience is filtered.

‘Disability’, argues Mitte, ‘is knowledge’.

3. 

The things that I had to go through to get to walk, to talk, to move my hands, to pretty much fight for my independence, that is something that no one else can take away from me.’

RJ Mitte

Representation of disability on television is important, but it’s important for producers to find actors with disabilities to play those roles.

In 2012, the National Tri-Union Performers With Disabilities Committee found that, while ‘20% of Americans between the ages of 5 and 64 are living with a disability, they’re represented by less than 2% of characters on television’. Mitte noted that the numbers briefly spiked to around 11% – all attributed to a cast of actors with disabilities on a particular show – and is now sitting closer to 5%. ‘There is 100% a difference between an able-bodied actor and an actor with a disability playing a character with that disability.’

4.

People with disabilities make up a large percentage of the target audience for any television show, film or product. Continually drawing attention to this fact can be a way to push for improved representation.

‘Money talks.’

5.

People with disabilities are sometimes encouraged to focus only on their struggles. That's limiting.

An audience member noted that, as a blogger with a disability, negative posts tended to perform better – and that readers encourage writing in which the negative aspects of living with a disability are foregrounded. RJ’s advice? Ruin their day, by posting about the positive experiences of living with a disability, because these insights are at least as important to share and publicise.

6.

RJ hasn't watched Breaking Bad (?!).

I’ve only seen the first episode of each season, and the final episode of the last season, RJ admitted. ‘I can't stand how I look or the sound of my own voice!

We have an entire auditorium of people who disagree, replied Tom Ballard.

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