What kind of television programs are there about disability, with disabled characters, or with disabled presenters? We present a whirlwind tour around the different TV genres and their approaches to disability.
In drama, it is rare to see lead characters where their disability doesn’t define them exclusively and motivates every action.
A one-off major exception was the UK drama The Silence where a deaf teenager, who is the lead character, witnesses a murder. Her deafness is a key part of the plot but her character is more focussed on dealing with normal teenage issues (partying, drug-taking, drinking, relationships, work and studying) and the program realistically shows how her hearing impairment has some impacts on these.
Image: Scene from UK soapie Hollyoaks
Disabled characters now appear regularly in soap operas, especially the UK, including favourites such as Emmerdale and Coronation Street. Wheelchair-using Amy Conachan (featured in above image) is a major character in Hollyoaks.
Where disabled characters are included, especially in soap operas a criticism is that these characters are used as a counterpoint and reference point for normal characters and that disability is used in a melodramatic way.
Another example of an exception from a drama series was Collision where the lead character’s daughter is a wheelchair user. As part of a sub-plot that contributes to the overall direction of the program, she wants to leave home to go to university and the portrayal is realistic and rounded.
Popular American shows that include characters with disability are Breaking Bad (the son of the main character has cerebral palsy), Switched at Birth (which has a number of characters and themes based around hearing impairment). Famously, Glee has wheelchair using Artie as a major character, although the actor that plays him, Kevin McHale is not disabled himself. Glee also features Becky, the cheerleader with Down syndrome.
Image: Scene from US television drama Glee
Disability among crime fighters has a long pedigree. The original was Ironside, the wheelchair-using San Francisco detective from the 1960s (played by Raymond Burr who used a wheelchair in real life). The latest is blind lawyer turned vigilante Daredevil. Animation is not exempt, Joe Swanson is a paraplegic police chief in Family Guy who uses his wheelchair to enforce law and order.
Disabled people tend to feature in news and current affairs programs as part of the news stories, rather than as presenters or commentators. The usual focus is reinforcing disabled stereotypes around miracle cures, inspirational disabled people and objects of charity. This is despite television channels having clear guidelines about the portrayal of disability.
The only times people with disabilities are asked their opinions tend to be around disability-related issues, rather than mainstream commentary on economic or social matters.
Image: Ade Adepitan presenting a travel show
Documentaries about disability are often fronted by people with disabilities. The transition to other programs is unusual. An exception is British Paralympian, wheelchair user Ade Adepitan who started with disability shows and then moved onto mainstream documentaries, including travel shows.
Documentaries about disabilities often focus on looking at miracle cures or a “day in the life” where people are asked to experience the life of a disabled person to highlight issues that are faced in trying to deal with an inaccessible world. A good example of this is the Irish TV Wheelchair Challenge where Irish rugby players (who have all had injuries that could have resulted in permanent disabilities) try and move around Dublin in a wheelchair.
More controversial are the freak show genre where people with rare disabilities are viewed as objects of curiosity. This was covered in a BBC documentary by Adam Pearson. The opposite to the “freak show” portrayal of disability found in programs such as You Can’t Ask That on ABC TV, which has a number of episodes focussing on different disabilities.
Image: Wheelchair users episode from Australian TV series You Can't Ask That
Reality TV now includes contestants with a disability in growing numbers having appeared on a diverse range of programs, especially in the USA: Survivor (Deaf contestant); The Amazing Race (Deaf person and person with Asperger’s); America’s Next Top Model (contestant with Asperger’s); American Idol (short statured person and person with a speech impairment); MasterChef (person with cerebral palsy and blind person who won the US version in 2012; Australia’s Got Talent (vision impaired person); The Voice (wheelchair user); Dancing with the Stars (multiple celebrities with disability). Long-standing shows The Biggest Loser and Big Brother have also included contestants with various disabilities.
Image: Scene from SBS dating program Undressed
A more recent dating program Undressed on SBS television has featured participants with disabilities and explored complexity and other dimensions to their lives beyond their disability.
The reactions to the representation of people with disabilities in these programs is the topic of research and discussion, including a very comprehensive analysis by Dr Katie Ellis from Curtin University in Western Australia. This shows reactions from positive, realistic inclusion to patronising and falling back on general disabled stereotypes.
Another sub-category is disabled reality TV such as ABC’s “disabled version of Big Brother” The Dreamhouse, where three young people with intellectual disabilities try to live together for 10 weeks.
A more controversial program was Channel 4 in the UK’s The Undateables, following disabled contestants and their quest for love.
Although disabled people have been on the receiving end of comedy programs, with their disabilities often the basis of jokes, there are more recent comedies where disability is handled in a much more appropriate way.
One of the highest rating examples from America is Speechless. A situation comedy centred around a boy with cerebral palsy and his family. In this program, the real life experience of people with disability is authentically portrayed with humour. Apparently Micah Fowler (the actor with cerebral palsy who plays JJ) contributed some of his own experiences that were written into the program.
Australian comedian Adam Hills, who has a physical disability, hosts a comedy panel show The Last Leg (the title deriving from his prosthetic leg) which also features regular presenters and other guests with disabilities. Hills has also presented music and talk shows.
Children’s TV is subject to regulations around content and themes, including how different topics are treated.
As a genre, Children’s TV has a mixed approach to the inclusion of disability. Ground breaking shows such as Sesame St has featured characters with disabilities, including the relatively new character Julia, who is on the autism spectrum.
Image: Julia from Sesame Street
There is a comprehensive database of Disney characters with a disability, although some stretch the definition of “disability” a little to be included.
Children’s presenters with a disability are also not common, and too often public response is drawn to seeing disability as a negative. A famous case is C-Beebies UK presenter Cerrie Burnell , who was born without part of her lower right arm, attracting concerns from parents having to explain it to their children!
In Australia, Deaf actor Sofya Gollan is a Playschool presenter.
Disability and sport seems to be limited to the Paralympics and reports about disabled sport.
It is common for the Paralympics to be have disabled presenters, but that doesn’t transfer to mainstream sports.
The only notable disabled presenter of sport that has moved to other genres is Ade Adepitan, who has also presented travel shows and documentaries, as well as hosting the Paralympics for Channel 4 in the UK.