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Disability on Television

Roughly one-fifth of the television viewing audience has a disability, but they almost never see actors with disabilities on TV. Even when the story includes main characters with disabilities, these actors are often passed over. Why are they so often excluded?

Disability Awareness Month is a time to focus on the unique needs, skills, and culture of the millions of Americans with disabilities. Many people choose to celebrate by watching movies or TV shows focused on disability issues. However, characters with disabilities are almost never portrayed by actors with disabilities.

Some casting directors may feel that the physical requirements of the role would be too difficult. However, their concerns are usually based on stereotypes and misinformation. Actor Mitch Longley, who uses a wheelchair, often surprises directors and viewers with the physicality he brings to his roles. In an episode of Desperate Housewives, he and Eva Longoria argue over an accessible parking space, and the argument quickly escalates into a physical fight. On an episode of Las Vegas, his character has too much to drink and punches a nightclub bouncer.

Even for actors who are more physically limited than Longley, there are many parts that would pose few special challenges. Think about how many sitcoms involve nothing more physical than sitting at a coffee shop or behind a desk. As Christopher Reeve showed in his remake of Rear Window, acting is a mental task, something that can be done even if you are limited in how you can move your body.

Even when actors with disabilities are cast, the roles are often limiting and stereotypical. Casting directors often seem to forget that disability is a normal part of life, not just a “special episode”. Actors with disabilities should be considered not just for roles about disability, but also for roles like “blues guitarist”, “mafia gangster”, or “college fraternity member #3”. For more than ten years, actor and disability advocate Robert David Hall has portrayed coroner Dr. Al Robins on CSI. However, when he was starting his career, good roles were hard to find. In an interview with Success Magazine, Hall said, “The only jobs offered to me were ‘the angry cripple’ or the ‘superhuman disabled guy.’” Today, Hall’s character on CSI has a disability, but it is hardly ever mentioned, and never part of the plot.

Casting actors with disabilities gives them an opportunity to share their voice and their experiences with the world. Perhaps more importantly, it shows young viewers with disabilities that they will be given the chance to contribute to the culture that we all share.

Fortunately, there are some casting directors that have made an effort to open their shows to actors of all abilities. In addition to the shows and actors already mentioned, there are several regular cast members and reoccurring characters with disabilities on TV. On Breaking Bad, actor R.J. Mitte and his character Walter White Jr. have Cerebral Palsy. On Lie To Me, Shoshannah Stern shares a hearing impairment with her character, research assistant Sarah. The Secret Life of the American Teenager features Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, as Tom Bowman, and Michelle Marks, an actress with Cerebral Palsy, as his girlfriend Tammy. On Nurse Jackie, both actor Stephen Wallem and his character Thor have diabetes. Private Practice features Michael Patrick Thornton as Dr. Gabriel Fife, both of whom use a wheelchair.

Even if you don’t watch these shows, let’s celebrate Disability Awareness Month by letting the networks and film studios know that we want actors with disabilities to be included, and ask to see more!