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TV Characters With Disabilities Few And Far Between

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Less than 1 percent of characters on primetime network television have disabilities and their numbers are on the decline, a new report indicates.

Max Burkholder plays Max Braverman on NBC's "Parenthood," one of five characters on network television this season with a disability. (Mitchell Haaseth/NBC)

Max Burkholder plays Max Braverman on NBC's "Parenthood" one of five characters on network television this season with a disability. (Mitchell Haaseth/NBC)

Of the 647 characters appearing regularly this year on scripted programs on ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC, just five have disabilities. That’s down by one from last year.

The findings come from an annual report on minority representation on television released Wednesday by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. It’s based on an analysis of the 91 scripted shows that networks have announced for the 2011-2012 season.

“People with disabilities represent our country’s largest minority,” said Christine Bruno, co-chair of the Tri-Union I AM PWD campaign to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in entertainment, which helped conduct the report. “We look to our stages and screens not only for entertainment, but to hold a mirror up to society. Our industry has a responsibility to its artists and the viewing public to accurately reflect what we see on our streets and in our communities.”

The characters with disabilities that are represented regularly on television this season include Max Braverman on NBC’s “Parenthood” who has Asperger’s syndrome, a character on Fox’s “Glee” who uses a wheelchair, the lead on Fox’s “House” who uses a cane, a character on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” who uses prosthetic legs and a woman on Fox’s “Raising Hope” who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome, appears in a recurring role on Fox's "Glee" as cheerleader Becky Jackson. (Michael Yarish/FOX)

Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome, appears in a recurring role on Fox's "Glee" as cheerleader Becky Jackson. (Michael Yarish/FOX)

Three recurring characters with disabilities are also expected to appear in roles on “Glee” and “Family Guy” on Fox as well as ABC’s “Private Practice.” But that represents just half as many recurring characters with disabilities as last year, the report found.

Cable television fared somewhat better, with at least 10 regular and four recurring characters with disabilities. They included individuals with everything from Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and hearing impairments to cancer.

Notably, the report indicates that in contrast to network television, many of the characters on cable are portrayed by actors with disabilities themselves.

“This is evidence of positive change,” Bruno said. “More cable producers and writers than ever before have demonstrated a commitment to authentic casting and accurate storylines. The success of these programs reflects the evolving attitudes and appetites of viewers, and puts those who create them ahead of the curve, creatively and financially.”

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. seeandbesafe.com says:

    Television producers, writers, actors and networks all have the ability to shape public perception to a larger degree than most people would care to admit. What better way to educate the public about respecting PWD accepting those who are differently abled than to include them in television programming.

  2. AutismInRealLife.com says:

    One of the best characters I have watched lately is the portrayal of Gary on Alphas on the SyFy channel. I feel he does a remarkable job of capturing the nuances of Aspergers…it is like watching an older version of my son. It is great to see a character who is in the role of one of the heroes yet also depicts some of the communication/social skill difficulties our kids have.

  3. PBMom says:

    The show Alphas on Syfy has a character with high functioning autism on it, and also a guest-star that has appeared now twice with lower functioning autism. They have done a great job at portraying this and deserves some recognition.

    On Stargate Universe, they had a guest-star (over several appearance) of someone who was quadriplegic.

  4. dzwick says:

    Mr. Heasley,

    I found your article to be a useful summary of GLAAD’s report and appreciate that you have included a link to that report for further study. In engaging with your article, I found it startling how this lack of representation for disabled persons hurts employment opportunities for disabled actors. It is a strange dichotomy, that one week after praise is lauded upon actor Peter Dinklage for his performance in Game of Thrones that the report indicates a decline in representation for the disabled community. In I AM PWD’s discussion of the report, they state, “authenticity is a clear advantage for accuracy in scripted programming, and creates a dimension that provides opportunities for further exploration in storylines.” In a medium that goes through so many test groups and surveys before a minute of content reaches the public sphere, do you feel that not enough is being done to tell stories that sprout from the disabled community or is there just a general lack of interest in seeking entertainment from disabled characters? I think that the inclusion of disabled characters like Dinklage on Game of Thrones or RJ Mitte on Breaking Bad are examples to the contrary, since they are highly praised dramatic shows able to incorporate disabled characters as a part of their dramatic content.

    I recently wrote a post on my blog surrounding what I believe to be a dark figure surrounding the number of people represented with autism spectrum disorders on television. I discussed how characters like Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory and Abed on Community, who have long been speculated to have Asperger’s Syndrome, are denying the ASD community opportunities for awareness and understanding. Furthermore, when the creators deny these public diagnoses, they potentially do more harm than good in terms of educating their audiences on the nature of these disorders, allowing their quirks to be used merely for comedy than explaining the nature and reasons behind their social miscues. Is it perhaps possible that there is more disability representation on network television that is not being cited, stemming from this kind of creative refusal?

    Thank you for shedding light on this issue and for the work that you do on behalf of the disabled community.

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