Report looks at the number of disabled characters in US TV… I’m a little unsure of the methodology…

This report looks at the number of disabled characters in US TV… I’m a little unsure of the methodology… But let’s look at the headline figures:


For the fourth year in a row, GLAAD also conducted a count of primetime broadcast scripted series regular characters that are depicted as people with disabilities (PWD). The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey’s 1-year estimates –

which provides detailed social, economic, demographic and housing data for areas with populations of 65,000 or more – reports that 12% (37.2 million people) of U.S. non- institutionalized citizens report living with an apparent disability.


Eight characters (1%) will have a disability this upcoming season, compared to four characters last season (0.6%).

My first reaction is scientific – I think the numbers (the 12% and the 1%) are nice to put side by side, but I’m not sure they are directly comparable.  I can’t check the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey because it stops being accessible during the US government shutdown… but my position is that the differing demographics on TV as opposed to real life is going to skew the numbers. People on TV tend to be *young* – disability disproportionately affects older people – thus one would normally expect that TV would show fewer people with disabilities, simply because they show fewer elderly people (I’m not saying that’s right – I’m just saying the lack of disabled characters is a symptom of a different, serious problem). Similarly people on TV generally have jobs, but unemployment disproportionately affects people with disabilities.

Maybe a better approach would be to look at the *types* of disabilities that are showing up. Of the eight characters identified in the study, we have two wheelchair users (for the record, we also have two prosthetic legs, a blind person, and one each of autism, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer).

Now let’s look at this source from the University of California….

The proportion of the population using wheelchairs increases sharply with age (see Table 1). Very few children (88,000, or 0.1 percent of the population under 18 years of age) use wheelchairs. Among working-age adults, the rate of wheelchair use is substantially higher, at 0.4 percent of that population, or about 600,000 people. By far the highest rates are found among the elderly population: 2.9 percent of those aged 65 or older use wheelchairs, or about 900,000 people.

So of the 794 series regulars (and I’m willing to assume, roughly, that they are of working age, or are at least as active as people of working age) counted by the report – two use a wheelchair, which is 0.25%, compared to what we’d expect from the population, which is 0.4% – not actually a massive distance away…

(If you are interested in doing the same maths for the characters with prosthetic legs then feel free to use this factsheet.

I should say that I’m very impressed with the people who did this work – it’s extremely useful – I’m merely being a little cautious, simply because the spectrum of disability is such that ‘disabled or not’ can hide an awful lot of horror…   I see no Cerebral palsy, I see no Downs, I see autistic tendencies played for laughs…

What we find is that there is a set of disabilities that are ‘TV-friendly’ and a set that are not… and maybe that’s not art holding up a mirror to nature…


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