Friday Requiem: People with disabilities represented pretty well on TV actually – but only if you have the right disability.

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Quick note for readers.  I think it’s important that I consider my back catalogue of posts to be part of the site and that they get maintained, looked after and followed up on.  So each Friday I’ll be picking a post I did from that week last year, and see if my opinions have changed, or find out how the story develops.

Last year I wrote about the GLAAD report that included some information about how well people with disabilities are represented on US TV.  GLAAD is mostly a LGBT organisation, and their report focuses on that area – but they also look at the disability angle as well.   As it happens, GLAAD produces the report every year so we’ve got a nice chance to go over it again.

So the headline for 2014?

This year the percentage and number of primetime broadcast series regulars with disabilities continues to slightly increase with, for the first time, each broadcast network including at least one regular character with a disability. Eleven characters (1.4%) will have a disability this upcoming season, compared to eight characters last season (1%).

Which is good news right?

Kind of.

As I pointed out last year  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. 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 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.  These I think are factors that are less skewing for LGBT demographics (I’ve love to see some data on this if anyone has some).

Also – GLAAD has a pretty wide definition of disability We note the line: “includes a character in a coma”, which, while *yes* that is certainly serious issue, it would probably be agreed that it’s somewhat outside the normal accepted use of the term…

Of the 11, 6 are mobility based. There are two wheelchair-users, two characters with prosthetic leg, and two ‘living with reduced mobility’.  I looked up the two living with reduced mobility (Both from Red Band Society: Leo and Kara if you are interested) and they both use a wheelchair. Which means that there are four wheelchair users.  So I can repeat the data analysis I did last year.

First you need to know that among working-age adults in the US, the rate of wheelchair use is about at 0.4% of the population.  But 4 out of 813 series regulars (for the record – I’m assuming roughly, that they are of working age, or are at least as active as people of working age) characters using wheelchairs is 0.5%.  So, in back of the envelope terms – wheelchair users are roughly accurately represented on US TV!  
Well done everybody! Inclusion! diversity! Excellent news.

Problem is, of course, that this is inclusion from a very specific point of view. It’s pretty easy to get a actor to play a person in a wheelchair compared to, say, Down’s.  It’s very easy to have that person be sexy compared to, say, disability caused by burn damage.

To leave you with what I wrote last year:

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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