The (Mis)representation of Disability on TV
Diversity on television has been a hot topic of media conversation for a while now. Perhaps due to the empowering effect of social media allowing all segments of the population to have their voices heard like never before, calls for the fair on-screen representation of various minority groups are gradually being met with some answers. However, for those of us who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like, progress is proving slow.
There are disabled people of every age, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and political inclination in society. So why is it that the representation of people living with disabilities so often resorts to limited stereotypes, such as the wheelchair-bound boy who wishes he could dance like the other members of his glee club?
Thankfully, some shows have been bringing characters with disabilities more into the limelight.
In Breaking Bad, the son of central character Walter White has cerebral palsy. The show’s portrayal of Walt Junior and his condition is well handled. He is a regular teenager; albeit one who finds learning to drive and shopping for new jeans more challenging than his able-bodied peers. The success of this vibrant character is undoubtedly aided by the fact that the actor R.J. Mitte has CP himself – albeit in a much milder form than his character. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage, is a fan favourite who commands respect through his nuanced characterisation and great depth. Occasional reference to Lannister’s smaller stature is made by himself and other characters, yet he is not defined by his dwarfism. In both of these cases, the actors’ disabilities are real and experienced, meaning that the representation of their conditions is not cliched, or poorly informed.
Yet there is still much work to do in the way of conquering stereotypes, and unfortunately these positive representations are largely an exception to the rule. The pity parties and freak-show formats remain. After all, the fair and appropriate representation of those who identify as disabled is difficult to achieve without more disabled people working in and advising on television productions.
In May of this year, the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) and Creative Skillset issued a workforce survey comprising over 1,100 respondents within television. The survey asked questions to analyse the recruitment, working patterns, training needs, pay, and socio-economic backgrounds of those working in TV.
Disappointingly, the results showed that the proportion of people with disabilities in the creative media workforce has remained static for 10 years at around 5%, against 11% across the wider working population. In other words, the proportion of disabled people working in television is still much lower than in the economy as a whole, and has not improved for a decade.
In response to these figures, the CDN and Creative Skillset are calling for the TV industry to look urgently at the numbers of disabled staff in television, and come together to improve representation levels.
“The TV industry has much work to do to create a truly diverse and representative workforce. The progress that has been made in recent years to encourage more B.A.M.E and women professionals must be extended to people with disabilities.”
Andrew Chowns, CEO of Directors UK
“TV can’t afford to miss out on the talent and skills of disabled people.”
John McVay, Chair of the Creative Diversity Network
In spite of this underrepresentation, many programmes are wasting perfect opportunities to showcase the talents of disabled people. In a notorious example, FOX’s hugely popular musical comedy Glee came under fire in 2009 for enlisting the able-bodied actor-cum-dancer Kevin McHale as the paraplegic high schooler Artie; a casting decision that offended viewers have likened to a white actor painting his face to play a black character.
Why not give the job to a real life wheelchair user? Or better yet, how about hiring disabled actors in roles which haven’t been written specifically for people with disabilities?
One company dedicated to change is VisABLE People; the world’s first talent agency creating mainstream professional opportunities for actors with disabilities. Founded by Louise Dyson in 1994, VisABLE People believes disabled talents are able to play most roles, and not just characters with a specified disability. So far, the agency’s clients have starred in some of the UK’s biggest shows, including Home Fires, Call The Midwife, New Tricks, Life’s Too Short, and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
“For the last 21 years we have tried to create much more than a climate of acceptance – but one of expectation – that cast members in films and TV series will include actors with disabilities; which are totally irrelevant to the character and story lines. I am proud of our trailblazing because for the very first time, a disabled child considering their career prospects knows it is it is very viable to have ‘Professional Actor’ or ‘TV Presenter’ on their employment wish list”.
Louise Dyson, Founder of VisABLE People
On top of needing more disabled actors and presenters on our screens, a more diverse group of people working behind the scenes will lead to a better range of perspectives.
In April of this year, a disabled viewership banded together to have an important impact on what we watch.
The show in question was the Netflix original series Marvel’s Daredevil, which follows a crime-fighting superhero who happens to be blind. Rather carelessly, the streaming company failed to provide audio descriptions for the programme, meaning that audiences with visual impairments were unable to enjoy a show that they had been looking forward to. In a petition labelled ‘#Dare2Describe’, fans protested that “if [Daredevil himself] were a Netflix subscriber, he wouldn’t even be able to enjoy his own show”. Netflix swiftly responded to the pressure by adding audio assistance, allowing blind audiences to enjoy the show along with everybody else (so much so that actor Charlie Cox was honoured with a Helen Keller Achievement Award last month for his portrayal of the blind character).
“It was incredible,” recalls Robert Kingett, a journalist and activist who is blind. “Me and quite a few other ‘blindies’ gathered around and watched the first episode in jubilance.”
In a broader triumph, the campaign has led Netflix to expand its accessibility options by adding audio descriptions to a range of its other titles.
Consulting Daredevil fans living with visual impairments seems like a matter of common sense. Yet remarkably few entertainment companies are taking the initiative to consider the disabled population, and how it may feel underrepresented or excluded by certain production and post-production decisions.
It is our strong belief that television should celebrate our real world diversity by offering fair and equal portrayals of our real world demographics. It is our hope that future programmes will build upon the progress already made, by employing a more heterogeneous workforce, and by listening to and representing members of the public who do not conform to the able-bodied majority.