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TV Characters With Disabilities On The Rise

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Twice as many characters with disabilities will appear on broadcast television this year as compared to last, a new report finds, though they still account for just 1 percent of those depicted.

Max Burkholder stars as Max Braverman on NBC's

Max Burkholder stars as Max Braverman on NBC’s “Parenthood.” The character, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is one of eight with disabilities expected to appear regularly on broadcast television this season. (Joe Pugliese/NBC)

Out of 796 characters appearing regularly on 109 scripted, prime-time shows this year on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW, eight have disabilities, up from four last year.

The findings come from an annual analysis of diversity in television programing conducted by GLAAD, a media advocacy organization for the gay and lesbian community. The report looks at the number of characters representing various minority groups — including those with disabilities — on shows scheduled for the 2013-2014 television season, which just began.

Despite the increase, advocates lamented the fact that actors with disabilities are still rarely cast to play the parts that do exist, particularly on broadcast television.

“When it comes to broadcast television, characters with disabilities are mostly represented by the non-disability community, while casting for disability roles on cable television is certainly more progressive: at least half of all scripted characters on cable with disabilities are portrayed by performers with disabilities,” said Anita Hollander, chair of the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA’s National Performers with Disabilities Committee, in the report which her group helped GLAAD prepare.

Characters with disabilities who are expected to appear this season include Max Braverman who has Asperger’s syndrome and his mother who’s recovering from breast cancer on NBC’s “Parenthood,” characters on Fox’s “Glee” and NBC’s “Ironside” who use wheelchairs, a character with Parkinson’s disease on NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show,” a father who is blind on NBC’s “Growing Up Fisher” and characters using prosthetic legs on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

As the percentage of characters with disabilities increased, the GLAAD report found that ethnic diversity on television has remained steady while there have been declines this year in representations of gender and sexual orientation on broadcast television.

“Overall, representation on prime-time broadcast television continues to not accurately reflect the diverse American population,” the report indicates.

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Comments (14 Responses)

  1. Aaron says:

    I would add the show “Legit” on FX that includes a number of disabled characters. One of the leads has MD and there are a number of supporting characters with physical and intellectual disabilities. It’s a pretty raunchy comedy, but in my mind, it’s one of the best shows dealing with disability there is.

  2. Amanda says:

    Don’t forget “Switched at Birth”!!

  3. stephen says:

    while it is good to see the disabled out of the tv shadows, it still irks me that most of them are played by non-disabled actors. why is that?

  4. Sunshine says:

    I’m curious about Brick on “In the Middle.” He has tics (and the actor himself has Osteogenesis Imperfecta.)

  5. popky says:

    What kind of world is it when we think 8 is a good number- an improvement. This is laughable and pathetic at the same time. And while recovering from breast cancer is a difficult journey (and a great storyline) I would not classify it as a disability.

  6. Jan Crosse says:

    The main character in “The Bridge” has Asperger’s syndrome as does a character in “King and Maxwell”. Hollywood seems to gravitate towards characters with high functioning autism.

  7. Tessa says:

    Don’t forget Jamie Brewer is back on American Horror Story (FX) this season, in a new role as Nan, one of the student witches.

  8. Roger Marsden says:

    Are they really disabled people or are they playing the part? Disabled people who have talents too.

  9. E. Lemke says:

    What about Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory? I Love watching him interact with others. He’s so….special …. and yet he is highly regarded as a scientist. Makes my heart sing!

  10. Phyl Levine says:

    You missed the BEST example of all. Walt Jr. “Flynn” White of Breaking Bad – Has CP in real life and on the show… yet it was a NON issue on the show. He is a brilliant (okay, and gorgeous) actor who happens to have CP. This fact was not factored into a very intense complex role/character. Loved the fact that disability was visibly obvious but had nothing to do with the show. He is a great actor – end of story.

  11. Michelle white says:

    This is awesome I just wish all of these people actually had disabilities besides the two or three that do!
    We need more equality in show business for actors/actresses with real disabilities instead if regular people playing disabled people!

  12. Emily says:

    As a young adult with a disability, I think it is a great idea that people from the disability community are recognized in mainstream media.

  13. Kat McNamara says:

    We need to lobby television programs to write people with different abilities into there shows. We also need quality writing for these characters. Sheldon Cooper is a great example for people with Aspbergers (sp).

  14. Ruth says:

    ok, for one, sheldon does not have a disability. and referring to Stephen, the ME on CSI really has two prosthetic legs. While I don’t think Arizona from Greys has one.

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