The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Almost all disabled TV characters are played by able-bodied actors. Can we fix that?

ABC’s upcoming comedy “Speechless” stars Micah Fowler an actor with cerebral palsy. (Kevin Foley/ABC)

A mere five percent of television characters with a disability are played by an actor with a disability, according to a recent study.

The report, by the Ruderman Family Foundation, comes amid efforts to increase diversity and representation in Hollywood, including the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that dominated headlines and social media earlier this year. And it points out that people with disabilities, estimated to be around 20 percent of the U.S. population, are missing from that conversation — even as small screen roles grow more diverse.

Co-authored by veteran actor Danny Woodburn (who played Mickey on “Seinfeld”), the report examined characters with disabilities on 31 of the most popular broadcast, cable and streaming shows and found that only four actors with disabilities were cast — less than two percent of the actors represented on screen. The foundation also surveyed hundreds of actors with disabilities and found that many faced discrimination while auditioning for roles. Most worked less than once a year.

“We think that this is a civil rights issue that Hollywood is ignoring,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in an interview with The Post.

Ruderman noted that Hollywood has faced backlash for whitewashed roles, but able-bodied actors portraying disabled actors has yet to provoke similar outrage.

“We’ve progressed with other minority groups,” Ruderman said. “With disability, the representation is still woefully inadequate and we think that’s based on a stigma that’s prevalent in society and also in Hollywood.”

Ruderman was among the advocates who spoke out against the film “Me Before You,” which features a disabled main character played by an able-bodied actor and faced criticism for incorporating harmful tropes commonly seen in movies about people with disabilities.

‘Me Before You’ has a disabled main character — but activists are angry. Here’s why.

On television, the number of actors without disabilities portraying disabled characters is staggering. The report examined characters on the top ten scripted shows on cable and broadcast networks for the 2015-2016 season, as of the end of March, including “The Big Bang Theory,” a host of “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” spinoffs and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The report identifies 20 characters with disabilities and found that only one actor shared his character’s disability: paraplegic actor Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who plays an investigative computer specialist on “NCIS: New Orleans.”

An analysis of 21 streaming shows, including “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jessica Jones,” identified eight shows featuring characters with disabilities. Out of 17 actors, just three had the disability portrayed on screen. Mark Povinelli, who plays The Cat on Amazon’s now-canceled “Mad Dogs,” has dwarfism. “Flake’s” Will Arnett has been open about his struggle with alcoholism, while “Orange Is the New Black’s” Natasha Lyonne has said she tapped into her past drug abuse while portraying heroin addict Nicky Nichols on “Orange Is the New Black.” The study acknowledges that drug addiction and alcoholism aren’t what society typically views as disabilities, but that they’re part of an evolving definition of disability.

Ruderman said the foundation looked at anything that could be considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which is why the study includes both physical disabilities and conditions such as anxiety, addiction and bipolar disorder.

The debate around having able-bodied actors play disabled characters is an ongoing one and Hollywood producers have cited their own reasons for making such casting decisions. In 2009, when “Glee” premiered on Fox, some disability advocates criticized the show’s decision to cast Kevin McHale, who is not disabled, as a paraplegic student who uses a wheelchair.

“We brought in anyone: white, black, Asian, in a wheelchair,” executive producer Brad Falchuk told USA Today in response to the criticism. “It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV.”

The discussion of broader definitions of disability gets even more fraught — does every character with an addiction or mental illness need to be played by someone with that illness? The report says no, it doesn’t have to happen every time, but that 5 percent is too low. In addition, the report argues that having more actors with these “‘invisible’ disabilities” will help “reduce stigma” around these conditions.

The report cites “Switched at Birth” as “one of the most disability friendly shows on television.” The Freeform show didn’t fit the criteria to be one of the 31 shows popular analyzed in the main part of the study, but features several actors who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and also featured “Breaking Bad’s” R.J. Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, in a recurring role. FX’s anthology series “American Horror Story,” another show prominently featuring characters with disabilities, was also not included in the 31 shows, though it is mentioned as an example of “shows that model inclusion.” (Still, the show, created by the team behind “Glee,” has faced criticism for veering into what some consider exploitation.)

There are other signs of progress. This fall, ABC’s new comedy “Speechless” will star Minnie Driver as a mother whose eldest son, JJ, is non-verbal and has cerebral palsy — played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy.

Ruderman is hopeful that the foundation’s report will get Hollywood’s attention.

“Historically, people with disabilities have been institutionalized and have been segregated,” Ruderman said. “We are emerging from that segregation, but Hollywood is not emerging quickly enough. And the idea that they can be comfortable portraying disability with able-bodied actors has to stop. They have to understand that there are great actors with disabilities and that they deserve a chance.”


‘Me Before You’ has a disabled main character — but activists are angry. Here’s why.