About one in eight Americans is disabled, but you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. In the new fall TV season, only six characters out of 587, about 1 percent, will have a disability. Even more amazing is that only one of those actors has a disability in real life.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and a new report shows persons with disabilities are all but invisible on the nation’s
five broadcast networks— ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC. That also means there are few opportunities for actors with disabilities to be cast.
The report, “Where We Are On TV,” by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) also found that of the six disabled characters, all are white and five are male. Yet 51 percent of all disabled people are women and only 18 percent are white. Robert David Hall, who plays Dr. Albert Robbins on the CBS show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and has a prosthetic leg, is the only real-life disabled person cast in a regular role in a series. The other five are all actors portraying disabled people. You can download the report here.
“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,” said Anita Hollander, chair of the Tri-Union I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities) campaign.
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.
Three unions—Screen Actors (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and Actors’ Equity (Equity)—launched I AM PWD in 2008 to increase the visibility and equal employment opportunities for performers with disabilities.
The situation is a little better on cable shows, GLAAD found, with two shows focusing on disabled persons and at least four cable characters with disabilities being portrayed by actors with disabilities.
Hollander says network TV could learn from cable when it comes to portraying disabled people:
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, something the broadcast networks should take a lesson from.