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.”
RECURRING CHARACTERS ON THE BROADCAST NETWORKS
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.”
CHARACTERS ON CABLE
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.”
NOTES ON METHOD
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.
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 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 IAMPWD.org.
Screen Actors Guild
Christopher de Haan
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
New I AM PWD study reveals lack of characters with disabilities on television
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