Television needs to normalize disability

Take a moment to recall your favorite TV characters. Maybe, if you’re the age of my father, it’s Fred Flintstone. Or if you’re a suburban mother, it’s Olivia Pope, PR extraordinaire. If you’re 20 and majoring in pre-med, it might be Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd.

And now try to recall how many of those characters were disabled, physically or mentally.

Less than one percent of series regular characters were depicted with a disability on major television networks, including ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC, in September of 2011. Meanwhile, the 2010 census revealed that 19 percent of the American population, or 56.7 million people, had some form of a disability.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities never receive the representation they deserve. Despite the low number of people with disabilities on television, the real problem lies in the writing.

“I had a birth defect in my hip,” said senior Britton Dunn. “I didn’t walk unassisted from August of 2009 until February of 2011. I missed my entire sophomore year of high school. I had to reteach myself to walk.

“…(During that time) I mostly turned to music. I couldn’t really connect with things on TV. The thing is, when there is a person with a disability on a show, it’s always done for a dramatic effect or it’s what defines a character. Even if the character starts out with a disability, it’s always a defining characteristic.”

In addition to television shows, there are many other forms of media that have a shortage of disabled actors and characters.

From 1998-1999, only 0.5 percent of all ads had actors with visible physical disabilities. Today the nation has become more accepting of diverse advertisements, however there is always room for improvement.

“People with disabilities are not a cause,” Nadine Vogel, founder of Springboard Consulting and mother of two disabled daughters, said to ABC News. “Say it like it is. This is a market that spends money and you want their business. Nobody is going to be offended by that. People with disabilities and their families want to be seen as contributing members of society, just like anyone else.”

Interestingly enough, disabled characters are making something of a comeback in the media today.

The number of primetime series regulars with disabilities has been steadily increasing for the past few years. According to GLAAD in 2014, 11 characters, at least one for every major broadcast network, had a disability. This makes up around 1.4 percent of all series regulars. Major television shows such as AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Fox’s “Glee” and the CW’s “The 100” are a few shows with regular disabled characters. Unfortunately, a new problem has arisen in Hollywood.

While the quality of representation may be improving, casts have remained largely able-bodied.

“We’re basically seeing more appearances of series regulars and recurring roles with disabilities, but still very few actual performers with disabilities in those roles, which reduces the accuracy and authenticity of the characters and the stories,” said Anita Hollander, chair of the National Performers with Disabilities Committee  for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, in a GLAAD report from 2014.

However, a revival of the Tony Award – winning musical “Spring Awakening” has recently transferred to Broadway with a major twist. The show, still in reviews, blends American Sign Language and spoken word performed by a cast composed of actors who are both deaf and hearing.

“Any deaf person can come to the theater, any hearing person can come to the theater, and they will get the exact same experience,” Camryn Manheim, who has the supporting role of Wendla’s mother in the show, told Pix 11.

With this recent progress in mind, we should continue to stay critical of our media and push for more equal and realistic representation.