PWDs on TV

I’m in mourning. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration. I’m definitely at a loss though since I scanned the fall TV premiers last week and noticed the (continued) lack of people with disabilities (PWDs.) I’m still not over losing Mel Fisher this summer.

When I think of recent shows (filmed no earlier than 2012), these PWDs come to mind:

  • Game of Thrones, a dwarf
  • Breaking Bad, a teenager with MS
  • Parenthood, a young boy with Asperger’s
  • Downton Abbey, a man using a cane to ease a leg injury
  • Grey’s Anatomy, a woman using a prosthetic leg
  • Legit, a young man with muscular dystrophy
  • Big Bang Theory, a man who has (I assume) Asperger’s
  • Glee, a teenager using a wheelchair and a teenager with Down’s syndrome
  • Covert Affairs, a person with a visual impairment
  • Ironside, a man using a wheelchair
  • Growing Up Fisher, a man with a visual impairment
  • Michael J. Fox Show, a man with Parkinson’s
  • Master Chef, Christina Ha, a real life blind chef who won the competition

Not a bad list, but when you consider the dozens and dozens of broadcast shows and hundreds of characters out there, it’s not an accurate portrayal of disability diversity. Let’s look at the raw data, shall we?

The US Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey reports 39.1 million Americans are living with a disability. With a reported 311.1 million Americans, that means  12.6% of the (non-institutionalized) population are people with disabilities.

So do at least 12.6% of the characters on TV have a disability? I researched online, looking for something straightforward like the VIDA count which compiles the gender breakdown of who is published and whose books are reviewed in literary outlets.

I had a difficult time finding a formal, annual recording of characters with disabilities and/or actors with disabilities on TV programs until I found the subset numbers in the 2013 Where We Are on TV report from GLAAD. Page 19 says that only 1% of primetime broadcast TV characters were people with disabilities. Only 1%, that’s it.

In 2013, NBC aired three of those shows, including my sentimental favorite, Growing Up Fisher. (I wrote about Growing Up Fisher here and here.) I thought that was a step in the right direction for a broadcast network. NBC cancelled all three shows though. Sigh.

Furthermore, not only are most shows devoid of a regular character with a disability, but the shows that do feature a PWD, the overwhelming majority are white males playing the character. That troubles me.

What is uplifting? An annual event that is encouraging change is the Media Access Awards which, “honors members of the entertainment and broadcast industries for their efforts in promoting awareness of the disability experience, accessibility for people with disabilities, and the accurate depiction of characters with disabilities.” The 2014 award banquet will take place on October 16.

While we wait for the 2014 Where We Are on TV report and the Media Access Awards, for fun you can head over to the Disability Thinking blog and vote for your favorite character with a disability.

Which TV shows do you enjoy that feature a person with a disability? Did you realize there is a lack of diversity in TV portrayals? Is the US behind other countries in inclusivity? Tell me your thoughts on TV programming and people with disabilities.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. herheadache says:

    Do you mind if I link back to this on today’s post? You have gathered some excellent figures and links I would like to share with my readers. I loved that Michael J. Fox show last year. I thought it was super cute. I didn’t mind that one you wrote about either. Why do they always seem to get canceled? It is a good question. People just don’t want to see people with actual struggles in life or something considered out of the norm. It’s really too bad.

    1. Lorraine Marie Reguly says:

      Kerry, you can link to any site and any blog without asking permission. You can also reblog others’ posts without seeking affirmation from them, too. In fact, the more you do it this way, the more noticed you will get.

      Other people like to have their content linked to, and take it as compliment. Of course, linking to top content on the web helps, too, for Google to rank your posts.

  2. I miss the Michael J. Fox show, and Growing Up Fisher. I also miss House, although I don’t know when it stopped airing. I still watch reruns. House, however, played by Hugh Laurie, walked with a cane as a result of a bullet to the leg, I think.

    I think more people on TV should have disabilities. More characters in books, too.

    1. House is one of my favorites, too. I’ll watch a rerun of it before I’d watch a new episode of a lot of the current TV programs.

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