Study Reveals Continued Lack of Characters with Disabilities on Television

Study Reveals Continued Lack of Characters with Disabilities on Television

1% Representation on Network TV Creates Few Employment Opportunities
for Performers With Disabilities; Improvement Seen on Cable Networks

Los Angeles (September 28, 2011) — Coinciding with the start of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, a new study shows characters with a disability are virtually non-existent on scripted primetime network television shows, presenting a stark contrast to cable channels, which fare significantly better in this area.

The report on television minority representation, which was released today, shows that scripted characters with disabilities will represent less than 1 percent of all scripted series regular characters—five characters out of 647—on the broadcast networks that include ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC. This is down one character from last season. This continued invisibility in the media is misrepresentative of people with disabilities, and means few opportunities for actors with disabilities to be cast.
 
The annual Where We Are On TV report issued by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) examined all series regular characters expected to appear on the 91 announced scripted primetime series airing during the 2011–12 broadcast network television season. The group analyzed the characters’ gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and whether they had a disability. This is the second year the study has also examined characters with disabilities. Download the report here.

“People with disabilities represent our country’s largest minority. With Americans living longer and veterans continuing to return from Iraq and Afghanistan with acquired disabilities, the number of Americans living with disabilities will continue to grow,”  said Christine Bruno, co-chair of the Tri-Union Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities (I AM PWD) campaign of Actors’ Equity Association, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and Screen Actors Guild. “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. ”
 
While people with disabilities are largely absent from the primetime television scene, they are very present in the American Scene. In 2010, the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 12 percent (36.4 million people) of U.S. non-institutionalized citizens report living with an apparent disability. The inclusion of people with non-apparent, ADA-covered disabilities, such as cancer or HIV, greatly increase this census number. Yet, even the original figure is nowhere nearly reflected by the broadcast networks.
 
As of this count, three of the five series regular primetime characters with disabilities scheduled to appear in the upcoming season are on the Fox network: the title character on House uses a cane, Artie Abrams on Glee uses a wheelchair, and Maw Maw on Raising Hope has Alzheimer’s disease. On NBC, young Max Braverman on Parenthood (NBC) has Asperger syndrome and Dr. Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) uses prosthetic legs. The study shows that neither ABC nor The CW feature any series regular characters with a disability this season.
 
The characters with disabilities who are on primetime television, however, represent a disproportionate view of reality. All five are Caucasian, and four are male. People with disabilities cross all diversity lines: ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, age, or gender. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 51 percent of all people with disabilities are female, while 37 percent of all people with disabilities identified as something other than white non-Hispanic/Latino. (2010 Census figures are due this fall.)

In addition, only one of the five actors has a known disability: Robert David Hall, who portrays Dr. Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“There is no substitute for the lived experience of disability,” Bruno explained. “It is not a technical skill that can be easily turned on and off. Disabled actors bring with them a lifetime of unique experiences that allow them to present authentic, nuanced portrayals that add not only to the rich, diverse fabric of our country, but create a greater understanding about the society in which we live.”
 
RECURRING CHARACTERS ON THE BROADCAST NETWORKS
When it comes to actors cast to play recurring guest star characters with disabilities, the number is down half from the six counted this time last year. Only three recurring characters are currently expected to appear on primetime network series this season, one who has Down syndrome (Fox’s Glee) and two with mobility disabilities (Fox’s animated Family Guy and ABC’s Private Practice). The two actors cast for the live-action roles are actually actors with disabilities.

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of five people in America are living with a disability,” said Diana Elizabeth Jordan, co-chair of the I AM PWD campaign. “I look forward to the day when characters with disabilities portrayed by actors with disabilities are also reflected accurately and frequently in film and television.”

CHARACTERS ON CABLE
While the annual GLAAD report looked at the finite number of primetime series regular characters on the broadcast networks, there continues to be some notable visibility on scripted cable programming. At least 10 series regular characters and four additional recurring characters on cable have a disability. On Showtime’s The Big C, for example, a suburban mom finds humor dealing with her cancer diagnosis, while USA’s Covert Affairs features a CIA agent blinded while serving in Iraq.

Notably, at least eight characters with disabilities on cable programs are portrayed by actors with disabilities:

  • In HBO’s Game of Thrones, the character of Tyrion, a little person, won actor Peter Dinklage an Emmy;
  • Character Walter White Jr. on AMC’s Breaking Bad has cerebral palsy, as does actor RJ Mitte;
  • ABC Family’s Secret Life of the American Teenager features the character Tom Bowman, played by Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down syndrome, and Tom’s girlfriend Tammy, played by Michelle Marks, an actress with a developmental disability;
  • The character Thor Lundgren on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie has diabetes and a prosthetic eye, a storyline inspired by Stephen Wallem, who plays Thor; and
  • ABC Family’s Switched at Birth features three characters with disabilities: Emmett, played by Sean Berdy, and Melody, played by Marlee Matlin, who are both deaf, and Daphne, played by Katie Leclerc, an actress with Ménière's disease.

“This is evidence of positive change,” said Bruno. “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.”

“We live in a very diverse country and cable networks have offered audiences high quality programming with culturally diverse casts,” added Jordan. “Disability is cross-cultural, gender and generational. People with disabilities also want to see their images reflected in the entertainment they watch.”

SUMMARY
Rear Adm. Alan S. Steinman, the highest-ranking member of the military to come out as gay, recently told MSNBC that he felt that gay characters in television and film have helped to foster acceptance, and ultimately led to the repeal of discriminatory policies such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the armed forces. In the same way that a more accurate representation of the American Scene has led to changes in attitudes toward LGBT people, the inclusion of people with disabilities in popular entertainment has the potential to make a difference.

“American audiences are some of the most savvy in the world. Our industry has a responsibility to create programming that reflects where we live, how we feel, who we are—all of us,” said Bruno. “We all have a right to see ourselves accurately represented in film, television and theater. Authentic casting and accurate storylines offer writers the opportunity to explore new directions in storytelling. Advertisers can reach an often untapped demographic with $20 billion in discretionary income. Most importantly, these characters, and the actors with disabilities who play them, lead by example and encourage viewers to demand widespread change.”

NOTES ON METHOD
GLAAD compiled, to the best of its ability, complete character data for all scripted broadcast primetime network shows at press time. This I AM PWD analysis of characters with disabilities is presented with the disclaimer that some character information may change before or during the programming season.
 
ABOUT I AM PWD
I AM PWD is a global civil rights campaign seeking equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities throughout the entertainment and news media. I AM PWD was founded by members of Actors’ Equity Association, AFTRA and Screen Actors Guild to bring media and public attention to the issues of media access, inclusion and accuracy for people with disabilities. You can visit I AM PWD online at IAMPWD.org.

Click here for the I AM PWD analysis of the 2010/2011 TV season.

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