GLAAD Study: Fewer Characters With Disabilities on Network TV This Season

Wed Sep 28, 2011 9:49am EDT

Even fewer regular characters on scripted programming on broadcast networks feature a character with a disability this TV season than last one.

According to the annual “Where We Are on TV” study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, issued Wednesday to coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month, five of 647 regular characters on broadcast networks have a disability.

That’s one less character than last year. All told, less than 1 percent of on scripted shows on ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC feature regular characters with disabilities,

Cable programming fared better: at least 10 regular characters and four recurring characters with a disabilities appearing on scripted cable shows.

The report’s authors say these numbers don’t reflect reality, as the U.S. Census Bureau found that 12 percent — 36.4 million U.S. citizens — reported living with disability in 2010.

“People with disabilities represent our country’s largest minority. With Americans living longer and veterans continuing to return from Iraq and Afghanistan with acquired disabilities, the number of Americans living with disabilities will continue to grow,” said Christine Bruno, co-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, said in a statement. “Our industry has a responsibility to its artists and the viewing public to accurately reflect what we see on our streets and in our communities.”

The report examined all characters expected to appear in 91 shows announced for the 2011-2012 season. The group analyzed character gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and whether they had a disability. This is the second year the study has also examined characters with disabilities.

Three of the five broadcast characters with disabilities will appear on the Fox network: the title character on “House,” Dr. Gregory House, uses a cane, Artie Abrams on “Glee” uses a wheelchair, and Maw Maw on “Raising Hope” has Alzheimer’s disease. On NBC, young Max Braverman on “Parenthood” has Asperger's syndrome and Dr. Albert Robbins on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS) has prosthetic legs.

The latter show's Robert David Hall is the only actor of the five with a known disability, according to the report.

The study shows that neither ABC nor The CW will feature any regular characters with a disability this season.

Even these characters — all Caucasian and four of them male — “represent a disproportionate view of reality,” according to the report’s authors.

By contrast, at least eight characters with disabilities are portrayed by actors with actual disabilities on cable programs, the study notes.

In HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the character of Tyrion, a little person, won actor Peter Dinklage an Emmy; character Walter White Jr. on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has cerebral palsy, as does actor R.J. Mitte; ABC Family’s “Secret Life of the American Teenager” features character Tom Bowman, played by Luke Zimmerman, who has Down syndrome, and Tom’s girlfriend Tammy, played by actress Michelle Marks, who has a developmental disability;

The character Thor Lundgren on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” has diabetes and a prosthetic eye, a storyline inspired by actor Stephen Wallem, who plays Thor; and ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” features three characters with disabilities: Emmett, played by Sean Berdy, and Melody, played by Marlee Matlin, who are both deaf, and Daphne, played by Katie Leclerc, an actress with Ménière's disease.

“This is evidence of positive change,” said Bruno. “More cable producers and writers than ever before have demonstrated a commitment to authentic casting and accurate storylines. The success of these programs reflects the evolving attitudes and appetites of viewers, and puts those who create them ahead of the curve, creatively and financially.”

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