Casting of Disabled Characters in TV

Disabilities and their representation on TV will always be something in Hollywood poised to add diversity to television shows.  This raises the question as to why characters with disabilities are not often represented by people with that specific disability and why “abled” actors play the roles instead. In many TV shows, a viewer can expect  to see maybe one or two characters with a disability.

Popular TV shows, including Glee, Malcolm in the Middle, Lost, and Joan of Arcadia feature actors confined to wheelchairs for various reasons. Most recently I also pondered the idea that not only are characters with disabilities played by non-disabled actors, but also that the parts are male dominated. Rarely is a disability role written for a female character.


Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle not in a wheelchair.

Able bodied Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle

Artie from Glee not in a wheelchair.

Able  bodied Artie from Glee

Glee “Time Warp” full performance with able bodied Artie Abrams in the wheelchair

Glee “Proud Mary” full performance  with able bodied Artie Abrams and Glee cast in wheelchairs

Malcolm in the Middle “Krelboyne Picnic” full episode with able bodied Stevie in the wheelchair

Actors do not solely portray disabled characters in wheelchairs. They can be seen portraying characters with Down Syndrome, Huntington’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, other disabilities affecting mobility, and mental illnesses. Glee, The Big Bang Theory, House MD, and ER, are examples of shows that feature characters with these disabilities. Yet the casting directors hire non-impaired actors to play the roles of disabled characters rather than cast actual people with these specific disabilities.

Unfortunately, it is both a shame and a missed opportunity to represent actors and actresses without disabilities to represent characters with disabilities when people with disabilities could very well be cast in these parts. Out of all the above mentioned TV shows, Glee half does the job. Lauren Potter, who herself has Down Syndrome, plays a character with Down Syndrome.   You can find shows like the short-lived Michael J. Fox Show, a sitcom in which Michael himself has Parkinson’s disease both on and off the show. Unfortunately, the ratings were bad and the show was cancelled. To really see people with disabilities represented one would need to watch reality television where there is a constellation of breakout shows centering around people with different disabilities. There are even game shows featuring people with disabilities now. Other than Glee, which is going into its seventh and final season and the cancelled Michael J. Fox Show, five shows have eight actors and actresses who have disabilities that represent characters with disabilities. As follows, some of the shows would not be accessible to all viewers unless subscribed with their cable provider or have an interest in watching that specific show.

Notably, at least eight characters with disabilities on cable programs are portrayed by actors with disabilities:

  • In HBO’s Game of Thrones, the character of Tyrion, a little person, won actor Peter Dinklage an Emmy;
  • Character Walter White Jr. on AMC’s Breaking Bad has cerebral palsy, as does actor RJ Mitte;
  • ABC Family’s Secret Life of the American Teenager features the character Tom Bowman, played by Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down syndrome, and Tom’s girlfriend Tammy, played by Michelle Marks, an actress with a developmental disability;
  • The character Thor Lundgren on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie has diabetes and a prosthetic eye, a storyline inspired by Stephen Wallem, who plays Thor; and
  • ABC Family’s Switched at Birth features three characters with disabilities: Emmett, played by Sean Berdy, and Melody, played by Marlee Matlin, who are both deaf, and Daphne, played by Katie Leclerc, an actress with Ménière’s disease.

Scene from Glee featuring Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson representing herself and her character with Down Syndrome

Michael J. Fox Show clip “Mike Hatches a Plan” featuring Michael J. Fox as himself with Parkinson’s disease playing Mike Henry a character with Parkinson’s disease

It becomes important to have actors with disabilities play characters with disabilities for many reasons. People who have physical and learning disabilities want to see others like them in a TV show that they can look up to and have as role models. When watching  30 to 60 minute TV shows, people with disabilities may want to have others to whom they can personally relate and feel like they are not alone in this world. Disabled people as well as abled people who view actors who represent characters portrayed by real actors with real disabilities in school, work, and social situations  show the entire viewing population the abilities of the disabled.  Although part of the job of actors is to research that which they have not experienced themselves in order to realistically portray a character, it is hard to believe that actors can portray and emote the same way that a person with a disability can. There also is a level of feeling and expression that may come out unexpectedly by a disabled actor that would not happen with an abled actor because people with disabilities experience things in life that actors that portray characters with disabilities do not. Also, hiring abled actors to play characters with disabilities limits the acting job opportunities available for actors with disabilities. In order for disabled actors to continue playing disabled characters in TV and film, producers, directors, and casting directors need to make these opportunities available to disabled people.

Currently, shows being produced for television are not just limited to scripted shows with professional actors. Reality television is paving the way for a new reality: the portrayal of disabled role models for people of all ages, especially children with disabilities. Shows like American Idol, The Amazing Race, The Bachelor,  and Bachelor in Paradise have given disabled people hope and inspiration that they too can be a part of reality TV as now they have successful predecessors. This is truly important because it helps people with disabilities come out of their shells, find acceptance in who they are, and aim to try to do what they before thought was unimaginable: have successes not just in reality television, but in real life.

Sarah Reinertsen, an amputee who finished seventh on The Amazing Race 10, learned the same thing, most strikingly while taking a walk in New York City in a short skirt that exposed her metal prosthetic leg. A stranger recognized her from the show and said his friend had recently had his leg blown off in Iraq.“His friend had been totally depressed, but watching me on the show had totally renewed his hope,” she said. “He thanked me for changing his [friend’s] outlook and his life,” Reinertsen said. “That’s when I realized just how powerful the show really was and that it could help change perceptions and lives.”

Television characters with disabilities played by actors or actresses with disabilities are empowering and life changing to both disabled and abled viewers.  These characters give people understanding, insight, perspective, and bring them one step closer toward acceptance, awareness, and successful integration of people with disabilities into the real world.

An opportunity to have a person who was a female in a wheelchair was missed. Ali Stroker was on The Glee Project 2 contending for a seven character arch on Glee. Ali was paralyzed at age 2 and in a wheelchair.  In the episode of Glee “I Do,” she goes on as a guest star and plays the “angry bitch” female character. The question here is why did she not win The Glee Project 2 and why did she not come back to be in more episodes of Glee?  In these clips you can see that she has the ability to sing and act just as well as the able bodied actor playing Artie, the paraplegic student. This shows that there was no justification for not crowning her the winner of The Glee Project 2 or for not having her guest star on a few more episodes on Glee.

The Glee Project 2 : Ali Stroker, paralyzed in real life and confined to a wheelchair singing “Here’s to Us”

Glee “I Do” episode with Ali Stroker, paralyzed in real life and confined to a wheelchair with able bodied Kevin McHale as wheelchair confined student Artie Abrams

Ali Stroker with “Team Hotwheelz” at the 2013 Los Angeles Abilities Expo

Ali Stroker with “Team Hotwheelz” at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

There was much outrage in the disability community by wheelchair-bound actors of the casting of non-wheelchair-bound Kevin McHale who plays Artie Abrams on Glee. They wanted to know why the Glee producers failed to hire an actor with the disability to portray the character. After all the outrage, an article was posted quoting Brad Falchuk, the executive producer of Glee stating:

“We brought in anyone: white, black, Asian, in a wheelchair,” he told the AP when discussing the hubbub. “It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV. He too understands the concern and frustration expressed by the disabled community,” he said. “But McHale excels as an actor and singer and it’s hard to say no to someone that talented,” Falchuk added.

Two years after the above article was published in 2009, Ali Stroker was a contestant on The Glee Project 2.  She is a definite contradiction to what Falchuk was quoted as saying two years prior. Ali has the ability to sing, act, and is on the wheelchair dance team “Hotwheelz.” She could probably dance circles around McHale and probably help to boost the ratings of the show for viewers who want to be inspired by an actor or even actress who truly represents themselves playing a disabled character. Ali was on one episode of Glee. It could have been the start to opening many doors for other actresses and actors with disabilities. But the writers and creators of Glee decided to keep that door closed.