Ignoring Reality: The Plight of Disabled Characters on Television

Everywhere I go, there's a guy in a wheelchair.

Granted, that guy is usually me. But even so, people with a range of disabilities have become more active participants in society and are more visible than ever before.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that that 12% of non-institutionalized American citizens — 37.2 million people — live with an apparent disability. In Canada, 14.3% of the population (4.4 million) identified as persons with disabilities in 2006, and that number has likely gone up since then.

However, this reality is not reflected on television. According to the annual Where We Are On TV report from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), there were only four regular characters with disabilities on primetime broadcast television when the 2012 season began in September, down from five in 2011. This paltry number represents 0.6% of all regular characters on scripted primetime TV, the lowest of any minority group aside from the transgendered population.

For the 2012 edition of Where We Are On TV, GLAAD examined a total of 701 characters termed "series regulars" appearing on 97 primetime scripted television programs airing on the five U.S. broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and The CW). The yearly report was first published in 2005 to track trends and compile statistics regarding the number of minorities represented on the small screen, focusing on sexual orientation, gender identity, and race/ethnicity. In 2010, GLAAD also began to count the number of series regular characters Flat tire wheelchairthat are depicted as people with disabilities, including mental as well as physical ailments. For the third year in a row, the number of disabled characters dropped while the representation of most other minority groups has steadily increased.

"In terms of who is showing up and what stories are being told on our scripted television shows, I think the numbers speak for themselves: it is an embarrassing and completely inaccurate representation of the world around us," said Adam Moore, the National EEO and Diversity Director for SAG-AFTRA. "Certainly there are a few bright spots in network television and, in particular, in cable series but, overall, there is still a lot of work left to do. We are confident that the powerful combination of audiences demanding a greater level of inclusion, the ever growing pool of highly qualified talent and the industry's commitment to our shared responsibility to create content that reflects the American Scene, will yield positive results in the seasons ahead. But to achieve real and lasting change, we must focus not only on hiring performers with disabilities for roles written with a specific disability but also on ensuring that these performers have a fair shot to play any character, regardless of disability."

Home of the impossibly beautiful people, it's not surprising that The CW came up short with a complete absence of disabled characters, while ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX all had a show with one disabled character each.

NBC's contribution is an eight-year-old boy named Max on Parenthood who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, portrayed convincingly by Max Burkholder. The young actor's performance has been praised for its accuracy, and the show's producers consult with experts in order to present an authentic look at the disorder.

Over at ABC, the character of Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) on hospital drama Grey's Anatomy recently joined the list when her left leg was amputated following a plane crash. Robbins was already involved in a lesbian relationship, so this character is a double whammy in the minority department with the loss of her leg.

Artie (Kevin McHale)Perhaps the most recognizable is Artie Abrams, the nerdy paraplegic student in a wheelchair on FOX's popular Glee. The show has drawn some criticism from advocate groups because Kevin McHale, the actor who plays Artie, is able-bodied. This is a valid argument to an extent — it wouldn't be appropriate for a caucasian actor to don blackface to portray an African American now, but we do have straight actors playing gay characters and vice-versa. Truthfully, all that matters is that Artie is included as a full-fledged member of the Glee gang and has been featured prominently in several episodes.

On the other side of the coin is Robert David Hall, a real-life amputee who lost both of his legs in 1978 after his car was crushed by an 18-wheel truck. His prosthetic limbs have been incorporated into his role as chief coroner Dr. Albert Robbins on CSI and he has appeared in nearly every episode of the long-running CBS procedural. The 65-year-old actor didn't even begin his career until after his accident and serves as a high-profile role model and advocate for people with disabilities.

Turning to the cable networks, only one character was identified as a person with a disability. Played by Stephen Wallem, Thor Lundgren on Showtime's Nurse Jackie is a diabetic gay male who uses a prosthetic eye.

HBO's Game of Thrones will bring that number up when it returns on March 31 with two prominent characters classified as disabled: Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a boy who lost the use of his legs after being pushed out of a tower window, and the vertically challenged "Imp" named Tyrion Lannister, portrayed masterfully by Emmy Award winner Peter Dinklage.

For my money, these two components of HBO's epic fantasy drama are the ideal characters to inspire people with disabilities. They both overcome their physical limitations and serve as powerful figures in the story, despite existing in an unforgiving world even more cruel than our own, with no use for cripples or dwarfs.

IronsideTo be fair, there have been several memorable characters with disabilities over the course of television history, from Ironside's titular wheelchair-bound detective to his animated brethren Joe Swanson on FOX's Family Guy. But for the most part, disabled characters are shoved into the background or omitted altogether. When they are included, it is often a token appearance for a special episode so that the "real" characters can learn a very important lesson. In TV and film, disabled characters have traditionally been depicted as either unnaturally noble or bitter, with very few complex personality traits.

Considering the depth of unique quality programming being produced by outlets such as HBO and AMC, it's surprising and a bit disheartening that this avenue hasn't really been tapped. HBO dipped its toe in with the comedy series Life's Too Short, starring the 3'6" Warwick Davis, but the show wasn't picked up for a second season. The underlying message is that most people, whether they will admit it or not, don't want to watch a show about a person with a disability.

Whether or not that statement is true, it's difficult growing up and living with an obvious disability when the media and the entertainment industry reinforce the idea that you don't belong. When a group of visible minorities never see themselves or anyone that represents them on-screen, it can be harmful to self-esteem and how those people view themselves in society. For this reason, and for a more accurate depiction of the changing population, it is important for television shows to attempt to include more regular characters with disabilities.

It is a reality that can no longer be ignored.


Message Posted On May 16th, 2013, 8:59 am
Best line ever: from Peter in Family Guy "You guys worship the ground he can't walk on!"

Message Posted On May 16th, 2013, 8:56 am
And where does Down Syndrome come in? The Becky character on Glee has been at the forefront of many storylines.

Message Posted On Feb 6th, 2013, 1:14 am
To the last commenter: Switched At Birth has started in January the last two years, not summer or fall, which would put it outside the bounds of the GLAAD study. I think it's kind of dumb that GLAAD chose to limit their data so much, but whatever. That said, should Switched at Birth really count towards this? They have made the characters' disabilities a centerpiece of the show. Personally, what I took away from Joel's piece was that there are very few disabled characters on TV that are treated as just regular people, rather than having their storylines based around their disability. And I still find it telling that so many examples have been in the comments, yet they still amount to like 20 characters total, out of 1000s of TV shows. Also, we are long past the point where we should be able to have a guy in a wheelchair be a character on a primetime show without most of his character arc being about him dealing with being in a wheelchair. We now have gay characters whose arcs aren't all about their homosexuality, and interracial couples on TV without the other characters harping on them being of different races all episode, so why do most handicapped characters still get pigeonholed into the role of "guy in a wheelchair" or some such nonsense. There are certainly examples (mostly on cable) of disabled characters with rich, developed backstories, but that number is still pretty small for such a relatively high percentage of the US population. Anyway, sorry for the wall of text, just offering my two cents.

Message Posted On Feb 6th, 2013, 12:48 am
What about SWITCHED AT BIRTH? Half the cast is deaf or hard-of-hearing.

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Message Posted On Feb 5th, 2013, 6:56 pm

rtruell: I wrote the article. :)


As an aside, the GLAAD report mentioned the character on Nurse Jackie, which airs on Showtime, so I'm not sure why Walt Jr. wasn't mentioned as well.


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Message Posted On Feb 5th, 2013, 4:04 pm

Chrononaut: "I'm not sure why he wasn't included in the GLAAD report, because Breaking Bad aired over the summer"


Probably had something to do with the fact that Breaking Bad airs on AMC, not on one of the 5 broadcast networks, which were the only ones considered for the report, as per the 1st sentence of the 5th paragraph of the article :-)  If not for that, I could answer your question to Anonymous about a blind character...Auggie Anderson on Covert Affairs, which started it's 3rd season last summer on the USA channel.



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Message Posted On Feb 5th, 2013, 11:48 am

I should have mentioned Walt Jr. in the article. I'm not sure why he wasn't included in the GLAAD report, because Breaking Bad aired over the summer.


As for Brick on The Middle, have they ever diagnosed him on the show? I think he's like Abed on Community, in that he displays symptoms of certain disorders but the writers haven't come out and specifically said he is autistic or whatever. I could be wrong, though.


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Message Posted On Feb 5th, 2013, 10:22 am

I also would have thought you would have included RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad (Walter White Jr). While he portrays his condition more seriously than it actually is on the show he actually does have a mild case of Cerebral Palsy. 

Being that he's a spokesman for the inclusion in arts and media of performers with disabilities you would have thought he may be on the list somewhere. 


Message Posted On Feb 5th, 2013, 12:41 am
What about Brick on the Middle?

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Message Posted On Feb 4th, 2013, 10:24 pm

What shows/characters are you referring to?

This study counted shows that were starting new seasons in the summer and fall.