It’s no secret that television programming offers a skewed image of our diverse society—one that’s whiter, straighter and more male. For example, 43% of characters on the 2015-16 cable and broadcast TV season were women, while in real life women make up roughly half of the population. But the small screen is doing better than it used to. In the 2014-15 season, for instance, only 40% of characters were women, meaning that the 43% figure last year was an improvement. We’re also seeing more gay and lesbian characters, more transgender characters, more characters of color.
We’re actually seeing improvement in all categories, except for one: people with disabilities.
Imagine if only 5% of female characters on television were played by women. Imagine if 95% of black characters were played by white actors.
According to GLAAD’s “Where Are We on TV” report, the share of characters with disabilities dropped from 1.4% to 0.9% on broadcast programming from 2014-15 to 2015-16. Given that at least 18.7% of Americans live with a disability, that’s nothing short of abhorrent. (And the 18.7% figure, from the U.S. census, is probably a conservative estimate since many people with disabilities are hesitant to self-identify as such.) If women were depicted in the same ratio as characters with disabilities, only 2.4% of all characters on television would be women.
What’s even more outrageous is the fact that actors without disabilities are so often chosen to portray the few characters with disabilities. Recently we looked at the top 10 scripted TV shows on cable and broadcasting networks for the 2015-16 season. In these shows, using the broadest evolving definition of disability, there were 20 characters who had a disability—either physical or psychological—while only one out of the 20 actors had one. That comes out to 5%.
Imagine if only 5% of female characters on television were played by women. Imagine if 95% of black characters were played by white actors. We as a society have accepted people’s right to self-representation, and yet when it comes to people with disabilities, we’re apparently fine with so-called cripface or disability drag.
We’re not absolutists. We don’t believe that every single character with a disability needs to be played by an actor with a disability. But if we’re going to employ Computer Graphics and makeup to create the illusion of disability, then we should also be willing to do the reverse. For example, in movies that center around a sudden disability caused by an accident, such as paraplegia, studios could employ CG to make a wheelchair using actor able-bodied for the parts of the movie that call for it. We know the technology is available—just recall the effective CG employed in “Furious 7” after the death of Paul Walker.
Another problem is that studios rarely hire actors with disabilities if the story line does not emphasize disability. In show after show, people of color play roles where their race is not the focus of the story, so why can’t actors with disabilities play roles that neither hide nor emphasize their disability? The doctor who uses a wheelchair, the waiter who has a prosthetic leg, the scientist who has cerebral palsy.
Inequality of self-representation matters on a real, human level. We are not talking about some obscure pursuit; we’re talking about America’s No. 1 leisure activity. Studies and polls have shown repeatedly that positive exposure to gay TV characters sways audiences toward greater acceptance and even toward greater support for same-sex marriage. Exposure to people with disabilities would have an equally beneficial effect.
Danny Woodburn is an actor most recognizable for his role as Mickey in “Seinfeld.” Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy organization focusing on the full inclusion of people with disabilities into society.
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