Number of TV Characters with Disabilities Drops; Fewer Roles Go To Disabled Actors

While television executives seemed to make a conscious effort over the past few years to create characters who, by definition, have some kind of disability, the number of people with disabilities on TV in 2015 actually went down.


According to a report by GLAAD, the percentage of people on TV with disabilities had nearly doubled from the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season, jumping from 0.6 percent to 1 percent, and then again jumping 40 percent to 1.4 percent during the 2014-15 season.

However, 2015 saw a buck in that trend. This season, eight characters on primetime TV will have a visible or invisible disability — that’s less than 1 percent of all TV characters. Among the networks that best represent the disabled community, FOX leads the way, featuring four regular characters with disabilities ranging from neuromuscular disease myasthenia graves to bipolar disorder. A pair of shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and “NCIS: New Orleans” on CBS, feature people with disabilities, with one using a prosthetic leg and another bound to a wheelchair.

On the cable side, ABC Family has two characters with disabilities; Natalie from “Switched at Birth,” who is deaf, and Charlotte from “Pretty Little Liars,” who was diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. “Shameless”‘s Ian lives with a bipolar disorder on Showtime.

GLAAD, which in 2013 formally dropped its original name “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation” to highlight its work with the entire LGBT community and its allies, has analyzed the prevalence of LGBT characters on television for 20 years. For the past six years, GLAAD has extended its 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 with groundbreaking series like Sense8 and Transparent,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis.

However, a growing concern as the book closes on 2015 is the lack of disabled roles going to disabled actors. Despite the number of characters with disabilities, the roles are not going to actors with disabilities. 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 deaf actress Stephanie Nogueras, who plays the aforementioned Natalie on “Switched at Birth.”

Even in past years, when the percentage of characters with disabilities was higher, there were few exceptions. Michael J. Fox playing a character with Parkinson’s on NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show” 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.

One company trying to combat this problem is Abilities United, an independent motion picture and television production company that, according to its website, was created to provide “an authentic voice, vision, and representation of those with a disability by featuring a main character with a physical disability and utilizing writers, directors, and actors with the same or similar disability in those roles.”

Despite Hollywood’s efforts, however, its role in putting people with disabilities in the spotlight has left more to be desired.

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