Wednesday, September 29, 2010

New I AM PWD study reveals lack of characters with disabilities on television

From I AM PWD:

LOS ANGELES — October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and a new report released today on minority representation on broadcast television shows that scripted characters with disabilities will represent only one percent of all scripted series regular characters — six characters out of 587 — on the five broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC. Not only is this invisibility in the media misrepresentative of people with disabilities, it also 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 84 announced scripted series airing during the 2010/11 broadcast network television season. The group analyzed the characters’ gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. This is the first year, however, the study has examined characters with disabilities. Download the report here .

“Among people with disabilities, where we are on TV has always been a mystery, and as this report clearly shows, mostly invisible,” said Anita Hollander, 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. “A major issue regarding the visibility of characters with disabilities in television is the fact that characters with disabilities are simply not counted in this industry. We thank GLAAD for taking the initiative to begin to count, identify and include characters with disabilities in their annual report.”

While people with disabilities are largely absent from the television scene, they are very present in the American Scene. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey, the percentage of U.S. citizens reporting an apparent disability is slightly more than 12% (or 36.2 million people). 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 six series regular characters with disabilities scheduled to appear in the upcoming season are on the Fox network: the title character on House (pictured), who uses a cane, Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley on House who has Huntington’s Disease, and Artie Abrams on Glee, who uses a wheelchair. On three other networks, Saul on Brothers & Sisters (ABC) is living with HIV, young Max Braverman on Parenthood (NBC) has Asperger syndrome, and Dr. Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) has a prosthetic leg.

These characters, however, represent a disproportionate view of reality. All six are Caucasian and five are male. People with disabilities cross all diversity lines, be they ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, or gender. According to the U.S. Census figures, 51% of all people with disabilities are female, while only 18.3% of all people with disabilities identified as White non-Hispanic/Latino.

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

“This analysis shows there’s a lot of work to be done on the broadcast networks,” said Hollander. “Actors with disabilities are rarely cast or considered for series regular roles, but authenticity is a clear advantage for accuracy in scripted programming, and creates a dimension that provides opportunities for further exploration in storylines.”

When it comes to actors cast to play recurring guest star characters with disabilities, it’s a different story. At least six recurring characters are expected to appear on network series this season, two of which have Down syndrome and are female (on Fox’s Glee), three of which have mobility disabilities and are male (on NBC’s The Paul Reiser Show, Fox’s animated Family Guy and ABC’s Private Practice), and one of which is deaf and female (on Fox’s Lie to Me). The five actors cast for the live-action roles are all actors with disabilities. “Compared to series regulars, there is definitely more gender variety and more authenticity in casting recurring characters,” said Hollander. “This suggests that producers and writers are showing a guarded interest in being inclusive of characters with disabilities being portrayed by actors with disabilities.”

While the annual GLAAD report looked at the finite number of series regular characters on the broadcast networks, there is some notable advancement in visibility happening on scripted cable programming. The Big C on Showtime, for example, revolves around a suburban mom finding humor in her cancer diagnosis. On Showtime’s United States of Tara, the title character has multiple personality disorder.

Notably, at least four cable characters with disabilities are portrayed by actors with disabilities: 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; character Thor Lundgren on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie has diabetes and a prosthetic eye, a storyline inspired by Thor’s portrayer, actor Stephen Wallem.

“I did want to explore that because there are so few diabetic characters on TV and in film,” Wallem told The Advocate earlier this year. “It’s very frustrating when you have the disease because most people don’t understand the severity of it, so this felt like an amazing opportunity to help expose people to diabetes and how serious it is without being preachy. If I can make any other diabetic feel a little less alone, it’s worth it.”

In other professions and industries, employees are hired for specific skill sets. Historically, people with disabilities have most often been portrayed on stage and screen by actors who do not have disabilities. “Popular programming on cable is leading the way when it comes to developing complex, multi-layered characters with disabilities, as well as the casting of actors with disabilities,” said Hollander, “something the broadcast networks should take a lesson from.”

What the most popular programs have in common is diversity in series regulars and stories. “We know that diversity makes those shows more interesting to watch, but the lack of representation on the broadcast networks indicates a failure to reflect the audience watching television,” said Hollander. “We encourage more inclusion of producers, writers, directors, casting directors, and performers with disabilities in the process of creating television that represents the vast range of people that make up the American Scene.

“I AM PWD applauds producers who embrace diversity and create characters with disabilities in their shows,” said Hollander, “and applaud even louder those producers who make the effort to search as hard for actors with disabilities to portray those roles.”

GLAAD compiled as best as possible complete character data for all scripted broadcast 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.

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 Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and Actors’ Equity Association 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

Press Contacts:
Pamela Greenwalt
Screen Actors Guild
(323) 440-2892

Christopher de Haan
(323) 634-8203

David Lotz
(212) 869-8530  

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Highlights of 2010 survey of people with disabilities about media representations

By Beth Haller, Ph.D. & Lingling Zhang, Ph.D., both of Towson University, Towson, Md., USA
(Contact emails: and

In the summer of 2010, an online survey of people with disabilities from around the world was undertaken to find out what they think about their representation by the news and entertainment media.

To find people with disabilities to take the survey, 31 disability organizations, groups and listserves inside and outside the USA, as well as all 50 Independent Living Centers in the USA, were sent e-mails with the survey link and a request to participate in the survey.

It should be noted that the online survey was programmed to record each computer’s physical address so when the respondents completed the survey, they would not be allowed repeated access to the survey from the same computer. In this way, the survey avoided multiple responses from the same individual participant. All respondents were assured of the confidentiality of both respondent and organization identities.

Who took the survey

A total of 430 respondents started the survey and 359 completed the survey so it had a response rate of approximately 83.5%. Among 430 respondents, 390 were people with disabilities, 29.7% (n=116) of them were born with disabilities, while 70.3% (n=274) of them acquired the disabilities later. For the findings listed below, only respondents with disabilities were included (n=390).

Among those respondents, the average age was 47 and the age range was from 18 to 82 years old. In terms of gender, 26.7 % (n=104) of the respondents were male and 52.6% (n = 205) of the respondents were female, with 81 cases not answering the gender question. Participants represented a number of races and ethnicities, but the majority of respondents were Caucasians (66.9%), followed by respondents of African descent (3.8%). About 3% of the respondents were two or more ethnicities; 1.5% of the respondents were of Asian descent and 1.3% of the respondents were of Hispanic/Latino; 0.8% of the respondents were American Indians/Alaska Natives and 0.5% of the respondents were Native Hawaiian /Other Pacific Islander. Eighty cases (20.5%) did not disclose their ethnicities.

The 390 respondents in the study were from 18 countries. 65.4% of the respondents were from the United States, followed by 5.6% of the respondents from Canada. The rest of the respondents were from: the UK, 1.3%; Germany, 0.8%; Australia, 0.5%, Vietnam, 0.5%. Another 12 countries had only one respondent taking the survey: Albania, Costa Rica, France, Iran, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Sweden.

Findings about entertainment media

The most viewed recent entertainment programs with disability content were:

Extreme home makeover (2003-present)
House (2004-present)
Finding Nemo (2002)
Little people, Big world (2006-2010)
Monk (2002-2009) (Tony Shaloub, who portrayed Monk, a detective with OCD, is pictured.)

On the 1-7 survey scale of stigmatizing to empowering, all 5 were closer to the empowering end of the scale, with Little People, Big World being viewed as the most empowering.

The most viewed older entertainment programs with disability content were:

A beautiful mind (2001)
Children of a lesser god (1986)
Rain man (1988)
Sesame Street (1969-present)
Dumb and Dumber (1994)

All these entertainment programs, except for Dumb and Dumber, were seen as empowering. Interestingly, A beautiful mind, Sesame Street, and Children of a lesser god all scored as having even more empowering representations than Little people, Big world. Dumb and Dumber was viewed as having highly stigmatizing representations of people with disabilities.

Findings about news media

Respondents evaluated the news media coverage of 68 disability issues, The issues included topics such as health care access, access to legal services, Medicare funding, special education segregation, and voting access. On a scale from 1 to 7 (1 meaning minimum/poor coverage and 7 meaning enough/balanced coverage), respondents say that American news media do a poor job covering disability issues. Only two issues, autism and the Terri Schiavo case rated a 4 or above, indicating enough coverage. The study suggests that in the mind of people with disabilities, news media didn’t give enough and balanced coverage to most disability issues overall.

Only 8 disability issues scored a 3, meaning they were seen as being covered a small amount. They were:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Assisted suicide/euthanasia
Blindness issues
Children with disabilities
Closed captioning - access to TV/Internet content
Disabled veterans issues
Health care access and costs

The respondents were asked their opinions of how the news media framed disability issues. The most prevalent frames they reported were negative ones: the Medical model, the Social Pathology model, the Supercrip model, and the Business model. The respondents said they do not think the news media frame disability using progressive models: Minority/Civil Rights model, the Legal model, or the Cultural Pluralism model. (See below for definitions of all the models.)

The respondents said overwhelmingly that they want the news media to use the terms “people with disabilities” or “person with disability” in news stories, and they do not like the terms “handicapped” or “handicapped people”

Other findings

A number of questions were asked about how much attention the respondents paid to mass media, and another set of questions asked about the respondents’ participation in disability organizations or disability activism. Respondents also were questioned about their self-perception as a disabled person. (Disability identity questions were taken from the Hahn & Belt survey, 2004). Correlations were run to see if links existed.

• The more attention people with disabilities paid to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they are to think the news media frame people with disabilities as Supercrips.

• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame disability as an illness.

• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame people with disabilities as disadvantaged and in need of social or economic support

• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame people with disabilities and their issues as costly to the society.

• The more individuals with disabilities are involved with disability related advocacy, the more positive attitudes they have about themselves as being disabled.

• The more individuals with disabilities perceive that media frame disability as illness, the more negative attitudes they have about themselves as being disabled.

• The more individuals with disabilities perceive that media frame people with disabilities as Supercrips, the more positive attitudes they have about themselves.

Models of media framing

These media models of disability representation were developed from a 1990 content analysis of the coverage of disability topics in more than a dozen major U.S. newspapers (Clogston, 1990) and a 1995 content analysis of the media coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Haller, 1999). These models of news media representation of disability fit into either a traditional (stigmatizing) or progressive (empowering) category.

Clogston and Haller’s traditional categories include:
• The Medical Model -- Disability is presented as an illness or malfunction. Persons who are disabled are shown as dependent on health professionals for cures or maintenance.
• The Social Pathology Model -- People with disabilities are presented as disadvantaged and must look to the state or to society for economic support, which is considered a gift, not a right.
• The Supercrip Model -- The person with a disability is portrayed as deviant because of "superhuman" feats (i.e. ocean-sailing blind man) or as "special" because they live regular lives "in spite of" disability (i.e. deaf high school student who plays softball).
• The Business Model -- People with disabilities and their issues are presented as costly to society and businesses especially. Making society accessible for disabled people is not really worth the cost and overburdens businesses, i.e. accessibility is not profitable.

Clogston and Haller’s progressive categories include:
• The Minority/Civil Rights Model -- People with disabilities are portrayed as members of the disability community, which has legitimate political grievances. They have civil rights that they may fight for, just like other groups. Accessibility to society is a civil right.
• The Cultural Pluralism Model -- People with disabilities are presented as a multi-faceted people and their disabilities do not receive undue attention. They are portrayed as non-disabled people would be.
• The Legal Model -- The media explain that it is illegal to treat disabled people in certain ways. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws are presented as legal tools to halt discrimination.


Clogston, J. S. (1990). Disability Coverage in 16 Newspapers. Louisville: Advocado Press.

Hahn, H. D. & Belt, T.L. (2004, December). Disability identity and attitudes toward cure in a sample of disabled activists. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 45, No. 4, pp. 453-464.

Haller, B. (1999). “How the News Frames Disability: Print Media Coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Research in Social Science and Disability. JAI Press, Vol. 1.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

New book on media & disability by Beth A. Haller

Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media, nonfiction by Beth A. Haller, Ph.D.

Towson University journalism professor Beth A. Haller's 20 years of research into disability and mass media inform this one-of-a-kind collection on advertising, news, entertainment television, film and Internet new media. Ideal for disability studies students and researchers as well as disability activists.

Available from The Advocado Press

213 pp. Softcover. $24.95 ISBN: 0-9721189-3-4
Copyright 2010
Pre-order today using this special order form!

Representing disability in an ableist world:
Essays on mass media

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1. The changing landscape of disability “news”: Blogging and social media lead to more diverse sources of information

Chapter 2. Researching media images of disability: How content analysis provides a method for assessment

Chapter 3. Changing disability terminology in the news

Chapter 4. Not worth keeping alive? New York Times narratives about assisted suicide

Chapter 5. Autism and inclusive education in the news media: A case study

Chapter 6. Disability media tell their own stories

Chapter 7. Pity as oppression in the Jerry Lewis Telethon

Chapter 8. The New Phase of Disability Humor on TV

Chapter 9. Media advocacy and films: The “Million Dollar Baby” effect

Chapter 10. Advertising boldly moves disability images forward