Scripted broadcast programming added nine more series regular characters with disabilities for the 2019-2020 season in comparison to last year, a new report by GLAAD found. This means that the percentage of characters with disabilities has risen a full percentage point to 3.1 percent. While this is a record high, the report cautions the data “still falls far short of reflecting reality,” as more than twenty percent of people in the U.S. have a disability.
Of the 879 series regulars on broadcast programming, GLAAD found that 3.1 percent (27 characters) have disabilities, in comparison to 2.1 percent (18 characters) last year. There are nine characters across all three platforms tracked (broadcast, cable, streaming) with HIV and AIDS, an increase from the seven characters counted last year and a substantial increase from the two counted two years ago.
GLAAD’s 2019-2020 Where We Are on TV Report includes the only analysis of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast networks of characters with disabilities. Largely known for tracking the number of LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast and cable networks, as well as streaming services, the Where We Are on TV Report also tracks racial, gender and disability inclusion on television.
The GLAAD report is based on self-reporting by the networks and content providers. GLAAD looked at 879 characters expected to appear on scripted prime time shows broadcast on ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC. Counts are based on original scripted series premiering or which are expected to premiere a new season in primetime between June 1, 2019 and May 31, 2020 for which casting has been announced and confirmed by networks.
The report finds that NBC leads the pack with 13 series regular characters having a disability, which is more than double than last year. “It is heartening to see NBC making strides in the disabilities represented on their programming – it is time for other networks to follow suit,” the report states. However, many of these characters are played by actors without the disabilities the character has.
One NBC show bucking that trend with guest stars is New Amsterdam, which has cast actors such as Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, Marilee Talkington, who is legally blind, and Ghaliyah “Gigi” Cunningham, who has Down syndrome. However, since this study only includes series regulars, guest stars are not included in the count.
ABC has five series regular characters with disabilities while CBS, FOX and The CW each include three. Of note are ABC’s Stumptown, CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans and FOX’s 9-1-1, all of which include a series regular where the actor has the disability being portrayed by the character – Cole Sibus, who has Down syndrome; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair; and Gavin McHugh, who has cerebral palsy.
“Inclusion of characters – and actors – with disabilities – must be an intentional effort,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts as the organization’s Vice President of Communications and author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit. “What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. The entertainment industry has an opportunity to help remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities. Seeing these characters on primetime TV, especially when they are portrayed as multi-dimensional beings and their disability is not the sole focus in the story, goes a long way in educating viewers.”
Gail Williamson is a talent agent for Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates (KMR), leading their Diversity Department, seeking out the right roles for talented actors with disabilities. Her clients include Jamie Brewer, known for American Horror Story, and Lauren Ridloff, who will play Marvel’s first Deaf superhero in The Eternals, as well as Cole Sibus and Gavin McHugh mentioned above.
“In the past six years, our Diversity Department at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, representing talent with disabilities, has seen the talents’ collective earnings grow from $50,000 in 2013 to over $3,000,000 in 2019,” Williamson said. “We hope that number will continue to climb as productions realize the value of the authenticity and diversity talent with disabilities bring to a project.”
Increased Representation of Learning Disabilities
Another positive outcome discovered in this year’s report is the increased representation of learning disabilities. In NBC’s Perfect Harmony, a young boy is diagnosed with dyslexia after acting out in school. His mother, who is going through a divorce, blames herself for his behavior until she is told of the diagnosis. He then learns new tools and ways of reading and learning the information.
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