With the series finale of NBC’s “This Is Us” approaching at the end of May 2022, the award-winning show continues to spotlight diverse themes, such as addiction, adoption, career endeavors, caregiving, disabilities (i.e. Alzheimer’s, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, PTSD, vision impairment), educational pursuits, family dynamics, obesity, racial disparities, relationship struggles, sexual identity and other important topics.
The entertainment industry doesn’t always get it right when it comes to portrayals of characters with disabilities. But perhaps the cast and crew of “This Is Us” are in fact representing “us” – including our disability community – fairly well.
Kate and Toby’s son, Jack Damon (also referred to as Jack Jr.), is played by three different actors, all of whom — like the fictional character — have visual impairments. Yup, three actors because, as dedicated fans know and love, “This Is Us” features flash-back, flash-forward and present-day scenes. On the show, Jack was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity.
Newbie actor Johnny Kincaid made his television debut during this sixth and final season portraying an adorable, toddler-aged Jack. His mother, Marisol Kincaid, took to Instagram to talk about Johnny’s disability representation.
“Johnny has albinism which comes with low vision and an eye condition called nystagmus,” her post read. “Although his character has a different visual impairment, we are SO thrilled for the representation and inclusion of the blind and low vision community in a television show that does so well at showing all the nuances of life with SUCH a huge reach!”
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes, according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. About one in 18,000 to 20,000 people in the U.S. have some type of albinism; though occurrence can be as high as one in 3,000 in other parts of the world.
This season, viewers also got a glimpse of 7-year-old Jack, played by Karl Seitz. Seitz was born with bilateral Peters Anomaly, an eye disorder that involves thinning and clouding of the cornea and attachment of the iris to the cornea, which causes blurred vision. While his run on “This Is Us” has been short, we expect great things to come for this budding talent. Seitz was just accepted to the Academy of Music for the Blind!
Adult-aged Jack, who fans first meet a few seasons back, is portrayed by Blake Stadnik, a Pittsburgh native with a musical theater background. Stadnik lost the majority of his eyesight due to Stargardt Disease, the degeneration of the macula, a small area in the center of the retina, as defined by the National Eye Institute.
And similarly to Kincaid’s comments about disability representation, Stadnick has also taken to social media to share his feelings. “It is a dream come true to be on screen with the incredible cast of “This Is Us,” and it’s an enormous honor to represent a low-vision character that is so powerful and nuanced,” he said.
More from Moore
Emmy Award nominees won’t be announced until summertime, but buzz is growing around the Emmy-worthy performance of Mandy Moore. The actress/singer’s role as Rebecca Pearson stretched her acting chops as she was charged with transforming into various aged versions of the character, essentially spanning Pearson’s entire adult life. As “This Is Us” comes to an end, Rebecca and the entire family are grappling with her cognitive decline following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Prior to this role, Moore didn’t have a connection to this neurodegenerative disease but has since developed a passion for brain health advocacy. In fact, Moore became a national ambassador for the Be Brain Powerful campaign, an effort to empower women to take control of their brain health.
“I’ve learned the importance of early detection and diagnosis for Alzheimer’s as I’ve researched for my role as Rebecca, and I’m honored to be an ambassador for Be Brain Powerful,” Moore shared when she joined the effort. “Early detection doesn’t happen often enough, and I’m looking forward to spreading awareness about brain health. This is the first step to break down these barriers and get these conversations started sooner with our loved ones and our healthcare provider.”
People with disabilities constitute the nation’s largest minority group. And the disability community is the only group any of us can become a member of at any time… which was true for the fictional character of Rebecca and, of course, true for many of us in real life.
Throughout the series, Susan Kelechi Watson has seamlessly portrayed Beth Pearson, a character in her pursuit to find her own identity while excelling as a wife, mother, dancer, professional and all-around rock of a human. Additionally, Beth supports her husband, Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), as he navigates a different kind of brain battle: anxiety disorder, depression and stress. Watson and Brown collectively voice the importance of mental health awareness – on and off camera – especially among the African American community as health disparities linger on.
Brown addressed the unfortunate stigma that remains. “The idea that needing help is the admittance of weakness – there is a part of that on a culture level that I hope that people are beginning to let go of,” he shared on The Hot Zone. Adding, “Seeking help is actually an admittance of strength. You see that there are some holes or blind spots that you cannot reach on your own… that I need someone to help me be the best version of myself as possible.”
Watson agrees. “There is an amount of balance that we have to remind ourselves to have,” she said, especially as people continue to encounter and, perhaps, normalize significant stressors as of late (i.e. pandemic, racial uprising, etc.). Watson appreciates the movement of self-awareness, self-care and spirituality. She also emphasizes the importance of being a whole person and not pigeonholed into one box, such as ‘mother’ or ‘career person.’
Watson, a two-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner for her strong performance on “This Is Us,” will continue the conversation about mental health when she serves as the keynote speaker at the Legacy Of Champions Luncheon on May 25, 2022 in Orlando to benefit The Mental Health Association of Central Florida.
Big Impact on the Small Screen
Representation of people with disabilities remains, unfortunately, lacking in entertainment. Even though 26% of American adults have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 2.4% of all speaking or named characters in films are shown with a disability, according to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The staggering gap between 2.4% and 26% is unacceptable and perplexing. So while it makes perfect sense that Jack Damon be played by actors with visual impairments, not all casting directors and producers regularly employ disability representation. “This Is Us” has shined a light on Alzheimer’s, blindness and mental health, in addition to an array of other important real-life issues. While we’re sad to see this meaningful show come to an end, let’s all hope its influence is a much overdue start toward proper disability inclusion and representation. Because, after all, shouldn’t entertainment include all of “Us?!”