Categories: General

By Erin Binney

When it comes to representing people with disabilities on TV, art doesn’t imitate life. A report studying overall diversity on the small screen released recently by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) reveals that scripted series regular characters with disabilities are few and far between. In addition, the report found that such characters typically are not played by actors with disabilities and do not reflect the makeup of the disability community accurately.

According to the Where We Are On TV study, only six of the 587 series regular characters expected to appear on broadcast networks ABC, CBS, the CW, Fox and NBC this season will have a disability:

  • A man on “House” who uses a cane.
  • A woman on “House” with Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological disorder.
  • A teenage boy on “Glee” who uses a wheelchair.
  • A boy with Asperger’s syndrome on “Parenthood.”
  • A man living with HIV on “Brothers & Sisters.”
  • A man on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” who has a prosthetic leg.

Only the last character is played by an actor with a disability.

It was the first time people with disabilities were included in the 15-year-old study, which reviewed 84 scripted TV programs scheduled to air this season. The study was conducted in conjunction with I AM PWD, a campaign to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in entertainment, which was founded in 2008 by three unions—the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Actors’ Equity Association.

“Ever since GLAAD began collecting quantitative data on all regular broadcast characters, we’ve seen it as an opportunity to paint the clearest possible picture of where TV diversity currently stands—both for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and other groups who often find themselves underrepresented,” said GLAAD spokesman Richard Ferraro in an e-mail. “Working with the I AM PWD campaign on this year’s report presented a great opportunity to bring even greater detail to that picture.”

Based on the data from the study, characters with disabilities make up just 1 percent of series regulars in the 2010-11 broadcast network primetime TV season.

However, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population self-reports having an apparent disability, according to an I AM PWD press release that cited data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey. Many more U.S. citizens have non-apparent disabilities, such as cancer or HIV, that are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the campaign added.

Furthermore, characters with disabilities tend to be portrayed as a mostly homogeneous group: All six of the characters with disabilities are Caucasian, and five are male. But I AM PWD noted that in real life “people with disabilities cross all diversity lines.”

For example, 51 percent of people with disabilities are female, and 37 percent of people with disabilities identify as something other than “white non-Hispanic/Latino,” I AM PWD said, again citing the U.S. Census figures.

“The analysis shows there’s a lot of work to be done on the broadcast networks,” said Anita Hollander, chair of the I AM PWD campaign, in a statement.

Bright Spots

Characters with disabilities are more accurately represented in recurring guest star broadcast network roles and on cable.

At least six recurring characters are expected to appear on network series this season. Two females on “Glee” have Down syndrome, “Lie to Me” features a female character who is deaf, and one of the sons in the yet-to-be-released “The Paul Reiser Show” and a male doctor on “Private Practice” use wheelchairs.

The sixth character who uses a wheelchair appears on the animated series “Family Guy.”

All five people cast for the live-action roles are actors with disabilities.

“Compared to series regulars, there is definitely more gender variety and more authenticity in casting recurring characters,” Hollander said. “This suggests that producers and writers are showing a guarded interest in being inclusive of characters with disabilities being portrayed by actors with disabilities.”

In scripted cable programming, “The Big C” follows a woman living with a cancer diagnosis, “The United States of Tara” is about a woman with dissociative identity disorder, a male character on “Breaking Bad” has cerebral palsy, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” portrays a male and a female with Down syndrome, and a woman on “Nurse Jackie” has diabetes and a prosthetic eye.

The last four characters are played by actors with disabilities.

In the study, GLAAD took into account only scripted shows, but reality programming “often includes some of the most diverse representations to be found on the air,” according to the report.

This season, for example, “Survivor” featured a woman with a prosthetic leg who competed in physical challenges alongside fellow competitors.

Other Diversity on TV

The GLAAD study also tracked the representation of LGBT characters expected to appear as TV series regulars and the racial/ethnic makeup of series regular characters.

The report found that 23 LGBT characters will account for 3.9 percent of scripted series regulars on broadcast networks during the 2010-11 television season, up from 3 percent in 2009. However, broadcast networks still report no transgender characters or those who are black lesbians or gays.

“The increase in lesbian, gay and bisexual characters on primetime television not only reflects the shift in American culture toward greater awareness and understanding of our community but also a new industry standard that a growing number of creators and networks are adopting,” said GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios in a news release.

Barrios cited the recent critical and commercial success of “Modern Family” and “Glee” as an indication that “mainstream audiences embrace gay characters and want to see well-crafted stories about our lives.”

“Glee” features an openly gay high school student, and a gay couple appears on “Modern Family,” which won an Emmy Award for best comedy in 2010.

The racial/ethnic makeup of series regular characters, according to the study, is as follows:

  • 77 percent are white.
  • 12 percent are black.
  • 5 percent are Latino.
  • 4 percent are Asian/Pacific.
  • 2 percent are “other.”
  • Firsthand Knowledge

Actor and disability advocate Robert David Hall lost his legs in 1978 when he was run over by a drunk truck driver. He now uses prosthetics, as does his character, Dr. Al Robbins, on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

In October 2009, Hall participated in a panel discussion hosted by Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on people with disabilities in the performing and visual arts. He talked about the portrayal of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry and the challenges people with disabilities have finding work in the field.

First, “images and storylines matter,” Hall said. It’s important to show characters with disabilities as complex people living regular lives. Historically, characters with disabilities have been portrayed as either “pathetic” or “superhuman,” he noted.

Second, Hall emphasized that actors with disabilities need to have opportunities to work. “My journey over 30 years has been pretty successful,” he said. “But I’ve had 20 percent of the auditions that my able-bodied friends” have had. “And in any business, you need interviews and auditions to get meaningful work.”

He explained that he wasn’t looking for a mandate for “2,000 actors next week on TV who are all disabled.” Instead, he said he wants to see “2,000 people next week who have a disability get a chance to succeed or fail.”

People with disabilities “have to be playing mothers and fathers and lovers and leaders and cops and social workers and every other real role that you see on television or in the movies,” the actor stressed.

Hall said he was humbled to be a working actor. “There’s only three or four of us with disabilities who make a living at it,” he noted.

Other longtime show biz veterans with disabilities include Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, and Marlee Matlin, who is deaf.

Jobs in Front of and Behind the Camera

In remarks at a July 2010 Academy of Television Arts and Sciences event, Solis spoke about the opportunities the entertainment industry has to hire people with disabilities—in front of the camera and behind it. In addition to lauding “Breaking Bad” and “The Paul Reiser Show” for hiring child actors with disabilities, she:

Suggested that the industry obtain a baseline of employees with disabilities so it can measure its progress in employing people from this group going forward.

Encouraged entertainment companies with internships, scholarships and mentoring opportunities to integrate disability into their diversity outreach.

Asked whether the industry could cast people with disabilities in “non-descript” roles—which she described as “roles anyone can play”—and in background scenes of employment, schools and community life.

“It is my hope that the Labor Department, Congress and our partners in the private sector will help open doors for people with disabilities to join growing careers like those in the entertainment industry,” Solis said.

Erin Binney is a staff writer for SHRM.