Representation of disabled people on TV: Adrift from reality?
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?
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.