I want to be the representation I didn’t see on TV growing up with a disability

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This first-person column is written by Dylan Earis, a graduate of the University of Regina’s journalism school. For more information on first person stories, see the FAQ.

Growing up, I watched a lot of television. I have a physical disability and unfortunately I was often stuck indoors, so the television was one of my companions.

While scrolling through the channels, I noticed something pretty obvious. Almost everyone on screen was standing. There was no one who looked like me sitting in a wheelchair.

I already felt marginalized in life, and now that I think about it, I don’t think television made me feel better.

My TV could receive over 40 channels and I wasn’t represented on any of them.

Then I found a light in the darkness. I started watching a show called Malcolm in the middle, because not only was it funny, but it also featured a disabled character. Malcolm’s friend Stevie was in a wheelchair.

I was so excited. Finally, someone like me was on TV. I had to learn more about Stevie. Did we share the same disability? What impact did this have on his daily life? Did he feel as marginalized by society as I did?

A quick internet search turned my world upside down. Craig Lamar Traylor, the actor who played Stevie, did not have a physical disability. The joy I initially felt upon seeing Stevie on screen turned into a disappointment that stayed with me for a long time.

It wasn’t until I started looking Break the bad that my view of disabled people on television has changed forever.

Before starting the first episode, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. It’s a show about a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and ends up cooking and selling medicine to support his family. Given the dark subject matter of the series, I didn’t expect to find something that would have a profound and positive impact on my life.

But the main character’s son is a physically disabled person. And it’s not just any disability, it’s cerebral palsy.

I have cerebral palsy!

He uses crutches to get around. I use a cane!

A young man in glasses sits at a table in front of a laptop.
Earis turned his love of media into an ambition to become a disabled journalist reporting on disability. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

Thinking about Stevie, I feared it was too good to be true. The character appears to have a disability, but is he? I was afraid of discovering something I didn’t like.

After another quick Google search, it turned out that my fears were in vain. RJ Mitte, who plays the character Walter White Jr., suffers from cerebral palsy.

I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew.

The sadness I felt when I saw Stevie and learned that he didn’t have a disability was replaced by the joy of watching Walt. Jr. on screen.

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It turns out that that joy was quickly replaced by the joy I felt watching someone else.

Myself.

Show up for the performance

It was a late Monday afternoon. I was in my motorized wheelchair, rolling alongside two of my classmates.

As students at the University of Regina’s journalism school, we had just finished interviewing people for a fake TV story about the flu vaccine. We were looking for a place to do our stand-ups, when we settled just outside the flu vaccination area.

Once my classmates did their stand-ups, I figured we were done for the day. I turned to go when my classmates asked if I wanted to try one of mine.

I thought about it for a while before saying yes.

I rode in front of the camera. The irony was not lost on me. I was there doing stand-up, sitting down.

When I watched the footage of myself, it was the first time I saw a disabled person doing stand-up for a news story. This reinforced for me the desire to bring to news reporting what RJ Mitte did to entertainment on Break the bad. Yes, there was disabled journalists like Tara Weberwho uses a wheelchair, but we don’t see enough representation in the media when people with disabilities make up almost 22 percent of the Canadian population.

A dark-haired man in a gray shirt smiles while holding a microphone.
Actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, played a character on Breaking Bad who also suffered from the same disability. (Getty Images)

I want to be a disabled person reporting on disability issues.

I want disabled people to look at me like I looked at RJ Mitte, not how I looked at Stevie.

I feel like I’ve already started this journey, but I know there’s a long way to go.

I look forward to every step.


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