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There are 587 series-regular roles on scripted network primetime television this fall. Only six of them have disabilities. Only one of those six is portrayed by a disabled actor.
That information comes courtesy of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which last week released its annual “Where We Are on TV” report. The survey documents the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters in each new fall television season. This year, for the first time, GLAAD also counted the number of characters with disabilities.
While the U.S. Census Bureau reports that people with identified disabilities make up a little more than 12% of the American population, they make up only 1% of the primetime population. Disheartening though that statistic may be, the fact that it even exists represents progress.
“One of the issues that performers with disabilities in the entertainment industry have continued to struggle with is the lack of accurate measurements on the portrayal and employment of actors with disabilities in television and film,” said Rebecca Yee, national director of affirmative action and diversity for SAG.
“This report is more than just numbers; it’s really the first authoritative study measuring the number of characters with disabilities on television, and importantly, the number of performers with disabilities who portray those characters.”
The research for the disabilities portion of the study was done in conjunction with I AM PWD, a campaign of SAG, AFTRA and Actors’ Equity to include people with disabilities in the arts and media. SAG and AFTRA have struggled for years to convince producers to include disability information in employment and casting data reports, which break down hiring data based on gender, ethnicity and age. But producers claim that reporting on disabilities could put them in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects the disabled from being identified as such should they not want to reveal their status.
According to Ray Bradford, AFTRA’s national director for equal opportunity and diversity, AFTRA succeeded more than a decade ago in getting producers to agree to include disabilities on employment data forms. But the addition has never been made, as producers and the union remain at an impasse over formatting issues, with the producers worried about exposing themselves to litigation.
“While we have found case law,” Bradford said, that demonstrates that “it would be a specious lawsuit, employers don’t like to deal with any lawsuit. So it has really brought us to this point that we have looked for any means available to count not only people with disabilities but, according to GLAAD reports, characters with disabilities. Because our thinking is characters with disabilities will hopefully lead toward employment of people with disabilities.”
Actor Anita Hollander, who chairs the I AM PWD’s steering committee and is a member of AFTRA’s national board of directors, noted that a count of actors with disabilities is needed “if only to find out that there are so few of us in the pool.”
Though the unions have taken no official stand against nondisabled actors playing disabled characters, Hollander said that for her and many disabled actors, watching those few parts go to nondisabled actors is frustrating.
“If you just watch any of the premieres this fall, you’ll keep seeing characters pop up with disabilities in smaller roles,” Hollander said. “Everyone seems to want one on their show, and it doesn’t translate most of the time to performers with disabilities. The GLAAD report was not concerned with performers with disabilities, whereas the performers with disabilities are looking very carefully at who’s playing them and wondering why we have to be represented by people who do not have disabilities.”
As Dr. Al Robbins on “CSI,” Robert David Hall is the one disabled actor on network primetime TV playing a disabled series regular. (Hall lost both his legs after his car was hit by an 18-wheel truck in 1978.) Like Hollander, he emphasized that disabled-actor advocates aren’t looking for handouts; they’re just looking to get through the audition-room door.
“I know plenty of people with disabilities who have MFAs in acting who just can’t get auditions,” said Hall, who is chair of AFTRA, SAG and Equity’s triunion performers with disabilities committee. “To have a career in this business is a miracle anyway. To have a shot at it, to have something approaching a level playing field, actors with disabilities have to be able to audition, and it’s just not happening.”
Hall acknowledged that many activists have mixed feelings about seeing disabled characters played by nondisabled actors — such as Hugh Laurie, the nondisabled actor who walks with a cane on the Fox series “House.”
“Do I think Hugh Laurie is a great actor? You bet,” Hall said. “I love him and I’m glad to see a character — this is me speaking personally — with a disability portrayed. But to some of the more active members in our group, it’s similar to saying, ‘What do you think of that Caucasian actor playing the role of the African-American guy?’ I’m not criticizing actors without disabilities playing disabled characters. I am saying every time that happens, there’s an actor with a disability who loses a slim chance to play a character who he might be.”
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