Art can take many forms. The mind wanders immediately to forms of media such as television or the songs and performances created by today’s music industry. In all artwork, representation and opportunity has become an objective of the highest importance. This shows itself in what art looks like or what it contains, but also in who creates it or performing it.
Those with disabilities— either invisible or visible — have found a voice through others’ creations and performances. The therapeutic approach has proven to have benefits for not only fans and consumers of art, but for those that create it, too.
Disability in the arts vs. Disability arts
To distinguish between the two, one can think of disability in the arts as a more active involvement of performers and artists that have disabilities, as opposed to disability arts — any artwork with disability as a central or prominent theme.
The differences are hard to make out at first glance, and they do walk hand in hand to a great degree. But artwork can be presented depicting the experience of someone with a mental illness without having anyone that suffers from a mental illness involved with the project.
This isn’t to discredit the work being done.
But in an age of acceptance and equal opportunity for all, it’s of the highest importance to make sure disability art accurately represents those with disabilities and to also give performers with disabilities a chance to shine.
A chance to “Break Bad”, a chance to give back
Recently, the Netflix film “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” was made available for streaming and was also released into a handful of theaters around the country, bringing the Southwestern crime world made by creator Vince Gilligan to the forefront of pop culture once again.
In 2008, “Breaking Bad” premiered on AMC, quickly becoming an American cultural staple. We were introduced to many unforgettable characters, all unique in appearance, personality and background. One of the most interesting characters is Walt. Jr. — portrayed by actor RJ Mitte.
Like everyone who was a part of the legendary show, Mitte received positive feedback for his portrayal of the main character’s son, who was conceived as a teenager with a mild form of cerebral palsy.
However, many even to this day are unaware that Mitte suffers from a form of cerebral palsy, himself. While it is not as severe as his character’s on “Breaking Bad” — Walt. Jr. walks with crutches and suffers from a speech impediment — Mitte has been open and adamant about the role creating a platform to be able to speak out for people with disabilities, including other disabled performing artists he feels aren’t given the spotlight often enough.
“My role on Breaking Bad was the opportunity of a lifetime. I hope I was able to educate viewers about CP and to give them a better understanding of what it means to live with a physical disability,” Mitte said in speaking with Brain & Life magazine in 2015.
The plot and purpose of “Breaking Bad” was never specifically about cerebral palsy. But even the main character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) suffers from cancer and countless characters deal with mental disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder and of course addiction, primarily to crystal meth.
The show is a strong example of both disability in the arts with a performer like RJ Mitte being casted as Walt Jr. and disability arts through its all-to-real depictions of physical and mental disabilities. With graphic scenes involving overdoses, anxiety attacks and the struggles of everyday life for those of us with a disability, “Breaking Bad” remains relevant.
Therapy through theatrics and healing with harmony
In the early 20th century, it was common for people with physical disabilities to not only be made fun of, but also exploited for profit. “Freakshows” and touring circuses advertised their performers specifically as being comedic or shocking, with many of their traits displayed in a humiliating fashion.
Fast-forward to 2019, and it’s easy to see that we have come a very long way in how we, as a society, view the disabilities of others. For the artists and performers with disabilities, their artwork and craft has become a source of healing and therapy for their fans and for themselves.
Musician/singer Melody Gardot is known around the world for her jazz which has drawn comparisons to legendary performers, from Judy Garland to Janis Joplin. A skilled pianist, guitarist and singer, one might think that life and music have always come easy. But that would be flat out wrong.
Gardot was involved in a horrific car accident when she was just 19 years old while riding her bike. The SUV struck her, causing injuries throughout her body — damaging her brain. Bed-ridden in a hospital for around 12 months, Gardot was forced to relearn a great deal and suffered from lapses in memory, as well as physical pain due to spine and leg injuries.
Her doctor recommended music as a method of helping Gardot’s brain reconnect and heal at a faster rate with more efficiency. Humming slowly became singing, which morphed into a desire to learn guitar and later piano once she was able to sit up with less pain. Little did anyone know that this therapy would give rise to a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated Jazz performer.
“It’s based on the way music connects the brain; it reconnects neural pathways and activates other parts of the mind that we don’t normally use on a daily basis,” Gardot said, speaking with The Irish Times in 2016. “It plays with the memory, it plays with vocal ability and also tactile ability. Because you’re talking about an instrument in the hands, and at the same time you’re making sounds, of course, so it activates the brain at a high level, and slowly but surely this became the way that I started to speak again.”
Now 15 years removed from the accident, Gardot still suffers from pain and must receive treatments especially while touring out on the road. But she is a huge advocate for music therapy for other musicians and fans alike.
Take a look around — everyday instances
Positive, strong, or inspirational examples of disability arts and disability in the arts are not hard to find anymore. Modern forms of art have embraced the experiences those with disabilities have and have not largely exploited these differences like they were in the past.
An actress like Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”, “The West Wing”, “Quantico”) can win an Academy Award while largely playing characters who are Deaf, as she is in real life. An artist like California’s Ketra Oberlander can impress the art world for years with digital graphics and acrylic paintings, and she is legally blind.
Even superheroes and action stars are being portrayed with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. A very prominent part of the Marvel film “Iron Man 3” features a Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) with severe PTSD after a terrifying battle with aliens and brush with death in the previous movie — a plot that was culturally appropriate for the year 2013, as veterans of the War in the Middle East had just come back in droves with the mental wounds of combat.
Stark’s best friend, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), also dons an Iron-clad suit and goes by the name War Machine. But part of his story arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes a spine-damaging fall from the sky that leaves him paralyzed below the waist. This doesn’t stop Rhodey from entering battle and even without his armor or technological walking aides, he still proves to be the hero, famously saying, “We work with what we got, right?”
Today’s younger generations have made it a point to seek out expressive artforms to relate to in this fast-changing world we live in. We all need role models and examples to look up to throughout our entire lives. For those of us that have physical or mental disabilities, seeing a work of art with disability as the theme or watching a performance by an artist with a disability can not only be inspiring and reaffirming, but life changing and perhaps even lifesaving.
Disability arts is becoming a selling point for studios and artists. Through a demand to then offer performers a chance to display disability in the arts accurately and thoughtfully, the future looks bright as we should expect many more disabilities to be discussed and shown in works of art.
John Everman is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.