The annual “Where We Are on TV” report issued last September by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) indicates that characters with disabilities are almost invisible on scripted primetime television (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC). Of 647 regular characters who appear on these networks, only five (less than 1%) have disabilities. In addition to regular roles, three recurring characters on primetime television have disabilities. Cable networks have done comparatively better providing more regular and recurring characters with disabilities. In contrast, the American Community Survey from the US Census Bureau reported that 12% of Americans (36.4 million) have disabilities. Christine Bruno, co-chair of the Tri-Union I AM PWD campaign which promotes inclusion of persons with disabilities in the arts and helped conduct research for the GLAAD study said, “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.”
Specifically, three of the five regular primetime characters are on the Fox network: Dr. House uses a cane, a character on Glee uses a wheelchair, and a character on Raising Hope has Alzheimer’s. On NBC, young Max Braverman of Parenthood has Asperger’s syndrome, and on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a character uses prosthetic legs. Neither ABC nor The CW features any regular characters with a disability this season. Three recurring characters on primetime networks have disabilities, including a character with Down’s syndrome on Glee and two characters with motor disabilities (Fox’s animated Family Guy and ABC’s Private Practice).
Of the five characters with disabilities on regular primetime television, only one is played by an actor with a disability (CSI). Two actors in recurring roles (Glee and Private Practice) have disabilities. Cable networks fare better in the use of actors with disabilities. At least eight roles are played by actors with disabilities, including Peter Dinklage, a little person, who won an Emmy for his role on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The use of non-disabled actors for roles with disabled characters has given rise to considerable fury over the internet. There is even a term for it – crip face – and the practice has been likened to white actors “blacking up” to play Othello. One role that has created particular angst is that of Artie, a character who uses a wheel chair, on Glee. An article in The Guardian aptly titled “No Glee for Disabled People” argues that although non-disabled viewers react to the disability-focused storylines on Glee with “praise and pleasure,” disabled viewers find them “offensive, appropriative, and wildly inaccurate.” Each casting of a non-disabled actor in a role for a character with a disability excludes the possibility of an actor with a disability appearing in that role. The Guardian goes on to complain that cable’s Covert Affairs, which also uses a non-disabled actor in a disabled role, perhaps missed the irony in airing a public service announcement using this actor to denounce the lack of employment opportunities for disabled veterans.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the unions have taken no official stand on the use of non-disabled actors for disabled characters. But according to actor Anita Hollander, who chairs the I AM PWD steering committee and is a member of AFTRA’s national board of directors, watching these few parts go to non-disabled actors is frustrating. Ms. Hollander said that in many television premieres this fall, “you’ll keep seeing characters pop up with disabilities in smaller roles. Everyone seems to want one on their show, and it doesn’t translate most of the time to performers with disabilities.” Robert David Hall, the only disabled actor on network primetime TV (CSI), said “disabled-actor advocates aren’t looking for handouts; they’re just looking to get through the audition-room door.”
A corollary to this discussion of how few characters on television have disabilities is the failure to provide a diagnosis for characters who appear to have a disability. David Zwick, a student at USC who blogs extensively about issues related to autism, in particular focuses on the characters Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and Abed on Community, both of whom many viewers presume have Asperger’s syndrome. According to Zwick, the shows may be doing more harm than good by missing an opportunity to raise awareness and increase understanding among viewers of a serious disability. By not diagnosing Sheldon and Abed, the shows obviate the need to be accurate in their depictions of an ASD, and the characters’ quirks become fodder for humor. Conversely, NBC’s Parenthood, which attempts to depict accurately a family’s struggles with their son Max’s Asperger’s, provides a link on its web site where readers can learn more about the disorder from autism specialists who attempt to help viewers understand Max’s reactions and responses in each episode within the context of his diagnosis. It is no coincidence that Jason Katims, the show’s creator, has a child with Asperger’s syndrome.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to analyze how well or how poorly characters with disabilities are depicted on primetime television. It is also beyond the scope of this blog to discuss how successfully or condescendingly issues related to disability are portrayed on television. It is obvious, however, that there needs to be a far greater representation of not only characters with disabilities but also actors who portray them. In a perfect world, we would frequently see actors with disabilities on network shows whose respective disabilities are utterly irrelevant to their roles, just as we see individuals with disabilities going about their lives in our communities. As with other groups in society until they are fully and fairly portrayed in popular media especially television, people with disabilies will continue to be marginalized.