Top Ten TV Shows with Disabled Characters
While TV shows have made great strides in recent years to include much greater diversity in their casts—The Walking Dead, Scandal, and Orange is the New Black all come to mind—there hasn’t been as much progress when it comes to characters and actors with physical disabilities. As a result, it can be a bit difficult for those with physical disabilities to find their experiences reflected on the screen. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of the ten best television shows with disabled characters. Unfortunately, most are played by actors who do not have disabilities. That's nothing new, but I hope that it is changing.
I've also found that male characters tend to be more represented than female characters. I'm combining both for this list.
If there's any I missed, I hope that you will let me know in the comments!
Glee has been getting a lot of negative attention for casting a non-disabled actor to play paraplegic Artie. This is, of course, nothing new, though it would be nice if we were actually making progress towards hiring more actors with disabilities. Kevin McHale, the actor who plays Artie, has defended the show saying that it is the same as a straight actor playing a gay character. I don't think that's accurate at all. A much better analogy is it is a white actor playing a black role by painting his face. Pretty offensive, right?
I don't think it's the show's fault. It just drew all the fire that was already about to explode. The controversy reveals a frustrating Catch-22, though. On the one hand, the casting directors claim that they can't find disabled actors who can also sing and do the rest of the part. On the other hand, if more actors who had disabilities were hired, it wouldn't be so difficult to find them! (And this is why I believe that disabled characters should be hired to play traditionally non-disabled roles, so that it will go both ways).
The show has often done poorly by Artie. Even the episodes focusing on him (of which there are far, far fewer than most of the other characters) are full of negative stereotypes and show that the writers did little research about living with disabilities.
Here are some of the criticisms:
No Glee for Disabled People (The Guardian)
Glee-ful Appropriation (Bitch Magazine)
Roundtable: Disability in Pop Culture (Disabledfeminists.com)
If This Keeps Up (Disabledfeminists.com)
However, the show still makes the list.
One episode featured Zach Weinstein, a quadriplegic actor (would have been nice to see more of him!). Also, the whole show is far from realistic and believable. It's over-the-top and a bit weird and Artie's character is a part of that. I wish he were played by an actor with a disability, but Glee is not solely responsible for this problem.
Watch Artie Sing Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely"
#9: The Book Group (UK)
This U.K. TV show is about an American who has just moved to Scotland and tries to make friends by starting a book club. One of the new members, Kenny, is a paraplegic. The first episode is a little iffy in its portrayal, but the show quickly turns out to offer a very realistic portrayal of what it's like to be parapalegic.
Kerry MacGregor is also on the show for a few episodes as a love interest of Kenny's. She is a real life paraplegic and was a runner-up on The X-Factor for her singing.
Check out a clip from the show below.
#8: Game of Thrones
I finally started watching this show and it is fantastic! It lives up to the hype.
One character is paralyzed, and that's done fine but it's hard to even tell so far. The real shining moment for advocates of disability visibility is Tyrion Lannister: a little person. The actor, Peter Dinklage, won an Emmy for his performance and it's well deserved!
The character of Tyrion Lannister is nuanced and has great depth. His short stature is not ignored, as certainly everyone else notices it about him ("Never forget what you are," Tyrion advises another character, "No one else will.") But he is so much more than what people see. He is one of the most interesting characters, and in a world mostly interested in fighting and proving oneself in battle, Tyrion uses his wit to fantastic effect.
You can find even more praise at the Quixotic Autistic blog. You can get a sense of what I'm talking about by watching the trailer below.
#7: Friday Night Lights
I've only seen a few episodes of this show, but from what I could see they were well done. It's a story about football in a Texas town, but in the first episode the star player breaks his neck and becomes a quadriplegic. The show is a lot more about the unprepared boy who takes his place. The show never forgets Jason Street, offering a heartbreaking and grittily realistic portrayal of how a former football star copes with and adapts to radically changed conditions.
Check out a clip of him below selling a car. (You may think from the clips that I'm wrong about him being a quad. He uses a manual chair, but if you catch a glimpse of his hands, you can definitely tell that he's quadriplegic).
#6: Breaking Bad
I'm personally not that fond of this show. The premise is that a high school chemistry teacher finds out he has terminal cancer and so he tracks down an old student of his and they start making and selling meth in order to put together a nest egg for his family after he dies. Very strong premise, for sure. My problems were: 1) it was extremely dark, 2) I didn't feel much connection with the main character, but mostly 3) the main character didn't seem to have any spark with his own family. I couldn't buy that his wife was his wife and he seemed to care a lot more about the delinquent student than his own son. However, lots of people love this show!
His son is the reason the show is on this list. The character has cerebral palsy. From the handful of episodes I watched, the show's portrayal of the condition appears to be very well handled. As in, pretty much in the background. He's a regular teenager. The actor who plays him also has CP and while that has caused a lot of excitement in the media, the actor has a much, much milder form of CP than the character, and some of the statements the actor has made have been rather upsetting from a disability rights perspective, such as this from an interview on AMC (the show's network):
Q: Last year you took up ballroom dancing classes in your spare time. Did you continue them this season?
A: Not as much. I actually went to a homecoming with a friend while I was out there, so the ballroom dancing paid off. That was a wise choice. I also like to go running in the mountains, which is a big difference from Walter Jr. I feel bad for people in wheelchairs and people who have to use crutches. I hate being immobile. That's one of my biggest fears, to be paralyzed.
#5: My Name is Earl
A strange one for the list. The main characters are not disabled, but there are several recurring characters who are. Marlee Matlin guest stars at one point as a deaf lawyer. Tracy Ashton is in several episodes as a single leg amputee whom Earl stole a car from. Her triple amputee boyfriend also shows up, played by Cameron Clapp . There is an episode about quad rugby featuring real wheelchair users, such as Katy Sullivan, a double amputee actress, and my newest celebrity crush, Christopher Thornton. Check out a clip from that episode below.
It's a wacky, zany show and I can appreciate how characters who have disabilities are equally a part of the craziness.
Another show doing something similar is The Office
They have a couple of episodes with real-life paraplegic Marcus York where Steve Carell's character makes ridiculous and ignorant remarks.
#4: Extreme Ghostbusters
This was a great, though short-lived cartoon show from the 90s. The premise is that a middle-aged Egon is teaching classes at a college in NYC when ghosts reappear and his class of four misfits become the new ghost-busting team. The episodes were well-written for a kid's TV show and the character of Garrett was particularly well-handled.
He was an adrenaline junkie, a sports guy, and just happened to be a paraplegic. An accident in his childhood is mentioned in passing in one episode, but no details are ever given. Garrett is completely confident and sure of himself. His disability very rarely comes in to play, though he does occasionally use it to trick a bad guy.
Though I loved the Gremlins episode, my very favorite was "The True Face of a Monster." In that episode there is a rash of vandalism of Jewish temples and a Rabbi's assistant summons a stone golem to defend against the vandals. In the meantime, Garrett runs into some old friends who had become lowlife thugs and petty criminals. He starts hanging out with them again, scamming people in basketball, and jumping off buildings with a parachute. Then his new/old friends let him in on their real interest: vandalizing the temple. He is horrified and tries to stop them. In the end, he is the one who takes the biggest risk and is able to stop both the golem and the thugs.
Check Out the Opening Sequence!
#3: The Guild
This would have been number one, but the character who uses a wheelchair is not in enough episodes. During the third season of this web-based show, the Guild goes up against their evil counterpart and one of those players is a tough-as-nails paraplegic woman named Venom, who is played by Teal Sherer (of whom I am a big fan).
She's currently working on putting together her own show called My Gimpy Life, which I can hardly wait for. Check out the trailer for it, and then watch the first full episode of The Guild that features Venom below.
#2: Dark Angel
A show from the late 1990s, Dark Angel ran for a short two seasons. It tells the story of Max, a genetically engineered female soldier, who escaped from her creators as a child and has been living in hiding, making a living as a cat burglar after a "pulse" wiped out computer systems in future-Seattle. In the first episode she meets Logan, a reporter who wants to make the world a better place. He gets Max to team up with him to do vigilante work. In that episode, Logan is shot and paralyzed and spends the rest of the series as a wheelchair user.
My favorite episode is called Haven. It gets Logan out of his apartment, which is rare! He and Max travel to a small town looking for an informant. The locals are dangerous and mean. In a nice reversal, Max is unable to fight the bad guys and Logan takes over. He beats the heck out of some bad guys from his wheelchair. Best line: "The great thing about the wheelchair is, it builds upper body strength."
Unfortunately, at some point Logan receives a gift of some DOD bionic legs and his disability is effectively removed.
Check Out the Show's Trailer
#1: Joan of Arcadia
This was a touching and fascinating show about a teenage girl who starts talking to God. God appears to her as different people, always looking and sounding different, who would guide her towards things that will help her grow. Rather than being preachy, it was beautifully honest show about the challenges of faith and finding meaning in life.
Joan's older brother, Kevin, had been paralyzed in a car accident two years earlier. (Played by Jason Ritter, not actually disabled). Kevin is still in a bitter state, not willing to move on with his life. Over the course of the first season his world begins to expand. By the second season he is out of the house with a job and different love interests. As he becomes fully adjusted to being disabled, a lawsuit comes up that forces him to deal with emotions left over from the car accident.
It's a well-done plot line. Believable except for one moment where he tells his girlfriend he can't live on his own because he needs help. All the paraplegics I know live on their own without help. Having seen his abilities over the course of two seasons, I am unable to believe that he couldn't live on his own.
Shows that didn't quit make the cut.
While these shows have very prominent disabled characters, either the quality of the show is low or its representation of disability leaves much to be desired.
- Lost (ABC)
- House (Fox)
- Family Guy (Fox)
- Degrassi: The Next Generation (Canadian)
- CSI (CBS)
- Malcolm in the Middle (Fox)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nick)
- Covert Affairs (USA)
Odds and Ends
A Wonderful Commercial Featuring Teal Sherer From The Guild
The Time Traveler's Boyfriend - A Fun Read
"I finally get it. Adam doesn’t want to revolutionize the world, become famous, or even kill Hitler. He built a time machine so he’d be able to walk again."