The Ruderman Foundation has just released a new white paper, in collaboration with actor Danny Woodburn, on people with disabilities on scripted TV. What they found wasn’t surprising, but it’s also not good.
There are three related issues.
1) There aren’t a lot of characters with disabilities.
2) Of those characters, most aren’t played by disabled actors.
3) Few disabled actors get considered for roles not specifically written as disabled.
Furthermore (and this is me, not Woodburn/Kopic), when we do get a disabled character, they tend to be cast in isolation.
Glee, for example, had 2 disabled characters: Becky and Artie. Artie, infamously, was played by a non-disabled actor so he could have ONE dance sequence in the entire run of the show. Becky and Artie never interacted as disabled (to my knowledge. I can’t tell you I watched the whole show, but would just drop in when folks told me there was a disability-related scene to watch).
I’m super-excited about Speechless, for example. I’ve seen the pilot (and will write on it in August), and the character JJ – a nonverbal young man with Cerebral Palsy – is great. He’s funny, sarcastic, opinionated, and finds solidarity with a black man in a completely white rich suburb over being tokens. I think it has a ton of potential. But will JJ exist in isolation, or will we get a representation of disability community? We’ve had disabled characters in sitcoms before – Corky (Chris Burke) in Life Goes On and Geri Tyler (Geri Jewell) in Facts of Life. I haven’t watched a ton of either show, but I gather they were pretty isolated among a broader fully abled population of characters.
I’m watching Breaking Bad now, which is an interesting show when it comes to disability (I couldn’t bring myself to watch it for personal reasons when it came out). RJ Mitte is a great character, but again, he exists as a person with a disability in isolation.
I’d like to see Speechless do better.
That’s one of the things I’ve really valued about Switched at Birth. It’s always been committed to showing the Deaf community and in its last season has engaged with issues of cross-disability identity (sparked by a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome for the fetus of one of the characters). It’s about both difference (esp between parents and children) and community across differences.
So I’m pleased to see the new white paper and the broader focus on issues of representation. How we portray disability in our fiction shapes what we imagine to be possible in reality. TV needs to do better.
EDIT: Vilissa Thompson (mentioned by permission), founder of #DisabilityTooWhite on Twitter, asked about engagements with race, sexuality, and gender + disability in this document. It’s a great question and an issue too easily ignored. I think this white paper heads in that direction by asking for disability to be included in broader diversity conversations and they include interviews with disabled actors of color, for example. Their stats, though, are based on assessing disabled character? yes/no and then disabled actor? yes/no.