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Representation of disabled people on TV: Adrift from reality?

Chris_Alumni Scope alumni Posts: 689 Pioneering

Twenty years ago, the United Nations proclaimed November 21 ‘World Television Day’. In the two decades since, TV has changed dramatically, with on-demand digital streaming, 24-hour rolling news and an endless cornucopia of channels having a dramatic impact on our cultural lives. But in that time, has TV’s attitude to and portrayal of disabled people also changed dramatically, or do they remain stuck in the past?

Clipart television with figure on screen

Underrepresented and typecast

According to a 2014 workforce survey by Creative Skillset, only 5% of those working in TV consider themselves to be disabled – a significant way short of the 11% who consider themselves to be disabled within the wider UK population. This is also in spite of those who consider themselves disabled being more likely to have a vocational qualification or to have undertaken an apprenticeship than most other demographic groups in the survey. They also have the lowest average income.

Not only this, the roles that are available to disabled actors are often limited to those for which the writer or director have decided that a disabled person is specifically needed to fulfil a plot point or address an issue. How often do you see a disabled actor take a leading role simply because they were the right person for the part? As Scope’s own Rosemary Frazer pointed out in an excellent Huffington Post article, “It is very rare to see roles like that of Walt Jnr in Breaking Bad… whose cerebral palsy was incidental to the series’ storyline.”

Missed opportunities and lost stars?

Because of the limited roles available to disabled actors, it can be hard to build a substantial portfolio of experience that will enable them to take on much more substantial, high-profile roles. As Rosemary goes on to say, “with not enough actors being given the opportunity to develop their skills, disabled roles are also often given to non-disabled but more experienced actors. Think Eddie RedMayne as Stephen Hawkins or Charlize Theron in Mad Max.”

One positive step forward that has occurred in recent years though is the amount of television coverage received by the Paralympics, with Channel 4 broadcasting approximately 165 hours of disability sport over 11 days. But is it enough that disabled people are only seen on TV in force for two weeks every four years, and within the exceptionally narrow context of elite sport?

Disabled people on television – What’s your take?

For better or worse, TV plays a significant part in many people’s lives. With such a low proportion of disabled actors and characters on our screens, and the roles played by them limited in their scope, is it any wonder that our society’s perspectives on disability are skewed?  

What do you think about the current representation of disabled people on TV, and have you seen any particularly good roles played by disabled actors recently? What can disabled people do to change the present situation? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


  • Philip
    Philip Community member Posts: 34 Courageous
    The only disabled people I've seen on TV have other attributes to help them along, for example, their colour, their sexulaity,  so being disabled really has very little to do with TV appear encephalitis. 
  • AlexW_Scope
    AlexW_Scope Scope Posts: 224 Pioneering
    We asked you for your favourite films and TV shows that portray disability. Here are your top suggestions...

  • Fundamentalist
    Fundamentalist Community member Posts: 133 Courageous
    Hi, from Fm. One thing that infuriates me is that people who are disabled like ME, i.e., those who suffer with conditions like misophonia, or 4S syndrome and severe heat intolerance are not represented AT ALL on British TV. Folk like ME are completely ignored by the media full stop and there are apparently absolutely no statistics about how many there are like me in the UK and this leads to total widespread ignorance and total lack of awareness of people like me and there are plenty who really need to know like those in authority. I myself have contacted the office for national statistics about this matter but they didn't want to know which enrages me and I must've written at least a hundred times to the media about this matter but it all falls on deaf ears needless to say. There are those and there are many who still think that disability is all strictly "white sticks and wheelchairs", despite the fact that only a very small percentage of UK disabled folk actually use wheelchairs and I don't. Fm.
  • JulesA65
    JulesA65 Community member Posts: 33 Courageous
    I would like to see more dramas include people with mental health problems. The best one I have seen is the young boy with Autism - I can't remember the title but I should imagine it is quite realistic. I would especially like to see more dramas involving schizophrenia. This is a very misunderstood condition and very badly portrayed in the media
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