Exploring the Rise of Characters with Disabilities in Modern Television

The GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” Report for 2016-2017 offered a report on the inclusion of characters with disabilities on primetime television.

In 2016, the percentage of series regulars with disabilities on primetime television rose to 1.7%, which is the highest percentage it has been since GLAAD began the count of characters with disabilities in 2010. This means that 15 series regulars are depicted as having disabilities on primetime television.

Exploring the Rise of Characters with Disabilities in Modern Television FOX takes the lead in representation of those with disabilities. On Empire, the character Lucious Lyon has the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis, the character Jamal has post-traumatic stress disorder, and the character Andre has bipolar disorder. On 24: Legacy, the character Ben Grimes also has post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, on Rosewood, Dr. Beaumont Rosewood has two holes in his heart.

Furthermore, on The CW, a character on The 100 suffered a severe leg injury which caused mobility issues. On ABC, the character Oliver Hampton on How to Get Away with Murder is HIV-positive, the character JJ DiMeo on Speechless is living with cerebral palsy, and the character Dr. Arizona Robbins on Grey’s Anatomy has a prosthetic leg.  

With characters like these appearing in various areas of primetime, the representation of those with disabilities has become somewhat more prevalent. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the president of RespectAbility states, however, that  

“As noteworthy as these numbers are, in comparison with previously tracked seasons, they lack far behind the actual representation of people with disabilities found in our communities nationwide.”

This happens, she explains, because the shows often include characters with disabilities only when the plot specifically centers around disability-related storylines. To better reflect reality, background characters could also have a higher incidence of disabilities in numerous episodes, and characters in the spotlight should have disabilities that don’t have anything to do with the movement of the show’s plot. So while progress is being made in representing those with disabilities, the television depiction of the lives of those with disabilities still doesn’t reflect lived reality.

One critic of the portrayal of people with disabilities on television, SE Smith, wrote in her piece entitled, “No Glee for Disabled People” in the Guardian in 2010 that she takes issue more with the casting decisions of actors who are chosen to play the roles of characters with disabilities on television. “Disabled actors have few opportunities,” she explains, “in part because of the insistence on casting nondisabled actors in disabled roles.” Changes need to be made, she urges, then, in not only including more characters with disabilities, but also in including more actors who have disabilities themselves to play those characters instead of choosing people without disabilities to fill the roles.

As GLAAD states, “While the percentage of series regular characters living with disabilities has increased on broadcast this year, primetime programming continues to fall incredibly short in reflecting the reality of this demographic.”

Though the representation of those with disabilities on television is not by any means what it should be, critics have found all the more reason to praise those shows that do include characters with disabilities. The Reel Rundown made a list of the top 10 shows with characters with disabilities in April 2016. They included such well-known characters as Artie in Glee (who has paraplegia), Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones (played by Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism), and the Friday Night Lights football player Jason Street (who becomes quadriplegic after an accident). We hope to see more characters with disabilities, and more actors with disabilities playing those characters, in the upcoming years.

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