Television Continues to Slight People with Disabilities

The number of characters with disabilities has improved but remains "shameful" when compared to real-life demographics, according to one disability activist.

Micah Fowler on the set of "Speechless" / TWITTER

For the past 20 years, GLAAD has conducted a study analyzing the prevalence of LGBT characters on network and streaming television. For seven years, they have extended their research to show the representation of people with disabilities.


"The expansion of the television landscape into digital platforms is helping to spark these needed changes, as content creators like Netflix and Amazon are making their mark," Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and President of GLAAD, said in her opening message.

In recent years, TV executives have seemed to make a conscious effort to create characters who, by definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act, have some kind of disability.

Since the 2012-13 season up until now, the percentage of people with disabilities on TV has tripled, from .6 percent to 1.8 percent.

This season, 16 characters on primetime TV will have a visible or invisible disability, constituting 1.8 percent of all TV characters. Among the networks that best represent the people with disabilities community ABC leads the way, with five regular characters with disabilities that range from autism to cerebral palsy.

A more growing concern as we close the book on 2017 is the lack of roles of people with disabilities going to actors who actually have a disability. Only two of the characters listed in the study are played by actors who share that disability: Daryl Mitchell, who is a paraplegic actor, plays Patton Plame on "NCIS: New Orleans," and actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, stars in ABC's "Speechless."

Even in past years, when the percentage of characters with disabilities was higher, there were few exceptions. Michael Fox on NBC's "The Michael J. Fox Show" playing a character with Parkinson's and RJ Mitte on AMC's "Breaking Bad" playing a character with mild cerebral palsy are two of the notable actors with a disability playing a character with the same disability.

Despite these numbers being higher than ever before, there is still criticism coming from disability advocacy groups. This sentiment was echoed when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the nonprofit RespectAbility, said in the report, "While these numbers are the best ever, they are still shameful overall. The percentage of characters with disabilities is literally less than one-sixth of what they are in real life."

Throughout its history, Hollywood has lead the charge for change and acceptance in America. Unfortunately, according to GLAAD, their role in putting people with disabilities in the spotlight has left more to be desired.

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