Another Perspective

Hollywood’s Invisible Minority

When was the last time you saw a character with a disability on TV?

By 6.3.11

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Quick question: When was the last time you saw a character with a disability on TV?

If you're a fan of Glee or CSI, perhaps it was quite recently. If not, it may have been a while -- characters with disabilities comprise just 1% of primetime network TV roles.

In fact, only six of the 587 series-regular roles on scripted network primetime television last fall had disabilities, according to a recent study. And only one of those six was portrayed by a disabled actor.

People with disabilities continue to challenge our assumptions and make remarkable strides in many areas of life. But they remain largely absent from the area in which their presence could benefit us the most: entertainment.

Numerous studies highlight how people with disabilities are "the invisible minority" in entertainment. A 2005 UCLA survey commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild found that only one half of one percent of words spoken on TV are spoken by a person with a disability. The study also found that more than a third of performers with disabilities reported facing discrimination in the workplace, by either being refused an audition or not being cast for a role because of their disability.

As CSI regular Robert David Hall, who uses prosthetic legs as a result of an accident 30 years ago, remarked about the study, "There is an alarming absence of people with disabilities in the media. We are virtually invisible."

A recent poll found that most Britons could not name a single high-profile person with a disability. And 99% were unable to think of a celebrity with an intellectual disability.

A recent study analyzed the last 131 winners of the Newbery Medal of Honor, the top prize for children's books. Researchers found that just 31 included a character with a disability, most in supporting roles.

The problem is not just how often characters with disabilities appear, but also how they are portrayed when they do. People with disabilities are typically depicted as one-dimensional characters instead of the complex, multi-faceted people they, like all of us, are.

Too often they are stereotyped as the evil or tragic villain, the heroic fighter or the supporting character who helps a main character learn a valuable lesson.

People with disabilities can fit these roles. But they can do much more. Reality shows about disability on TLC and other niche networks can be compelling. But our ultimate goal should be programming that regularly includes characters with disabilities who aren't defined only by their disability.

In other words, it's time not for more disabled characters but rather for more characters who happen to have disabilities.

This matters because despite the gains they have made, people with disabilities still encounter ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. A 2010 survey of nearly 400 Georgia residents found little interaction with or knowledge about people with developmental disabilities. Just one third encountered them in their daily lives.

In the current "age of perfection," as prenatal genetic testing and disability abortion become more common, our response to disability has shifted -- subtly but unmistakably -- from silent disapproval to open hostility. As Robert Edwards, test tube baby pioneer and 2010 Nobel Prize winner, has said, "Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease."

Such hostility toward disability was evident in 2009 when the BBC children's channel CBeebies hired a host with only one fully formed arm. The host's on-air appearances provoked an angry backlash from some parents, many of whom suggested that the show was not the proper venue to introduce kids to disability.

One parent wrote the show questioning "the logic of hiring a girl with part of her arm missing." Another wrote, "Little overboard on the need for political correctness, perhaps?"

That parent had it backwards. Political correctness attempts to distort reality by covering up uncomfortable truths. By revealing that disability exists but need not prevent human flourishing, the inclusion of the capable host was simply a matter of correctness.

Our culture encourages us to proudly display our true selves to the world -- on everything from our sexuality and racial heritage to our religious faith. Yet in many ways disability is the final taboo -- something we'd rather avoid talking about in part because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and inevitable demise.

The accurate portrayal of people with disabilities in our media provides a chance for solidarity and understanding. It also offers people with disabilities characters they can identify with and learn from. And it gives those who don't have a disability a glimpse of what life is like for people who do.

As CSI's Hall has said, "Kids and adults with all kinds of disabilities need to see positive images of themselves. And the world at large needs to see people with disabilities as the intelligent, talented and passionate human beings that we are."

In the end, there is a simple reason why people with disabilities should appear prominently in entertainment: because they appear prominently in life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 54 million Americans -- nearly 20% of the civilian non-institutionalized population -- have a disability. Roughly two-thirds of these individuals have a severe disability.

The candid portrayal of disability on TV and in books will help us move beyond the point-and-stare culture that defines many of our responses to disability. The entertainment world has long presented itself as a champion of tolerance and diversity. It's time for it to live up to those values in its treatment of people with disabilities. 

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.