White Papers & Research

White Papers & Research

Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television



Did you know that the average American spends more time watching TV than hanging out with friends? But did you also know that’s not such a horrible thing? Television after all is credited with expanding greater social acceptance of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community for example. In other words, all that screen time is having a positive impact on human beings in the real world and is nudging us toward becoming a more inclusive and welcoming society.

But before you go off and celebrate by marathoning your favorite show, consider that this wonderful social effect only comes about if minority characters are actually present in the shows. So for the second round of “did you know”s:

Did you know that people with disabilities make up 20% of our population, but fewer than 1% of TV characters? Did you know that we just conducted a study with famed actor Danny Woodburn, and found that only 5% of those characters with disabilities are played by actual actors with disabilities? Imagine if only 5% of female characters were played by women. Imagine if the next football game you watched had only one football player on the field out of the 22 positions and that the remaining people were acting as football players. That would not only be the least authentic football game ever, but we as a society wouldn’t stand for it.

The fact is that one out of five of you reading this have a disability and that five out of five know someone who has one. We explore the implications of this reality in much more detail in our latest Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television which you can read here. For the Executive Summary, read below.




Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television. What compounds the problem is the fact that even when characters with disabilities are featured on the small screen, they are far too often played by actors without disabilities.

We conducted an investigation into the frequency of actors with disabilities on the top-ten television shows toward the end of the 2015-2016 TV season. We also did the same for the top twenty-one shows that are original content featured on streaming platforms. Finally, we conducted a survey of actors with disabilities to assess their perspectives and personal experiences in the television industry.

In addition to our data collection, Danny Woodburn also lays out his decades of experience in the television business and highlights the problems with our currently accepted definition of “diversity” as well as the systemic hurdles performers with disabilities have to combat in order to be employed in television.


Content Analysis

We found that more than 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television. While streaming platforms had a better percentage, they also had a lower overall count of characters with disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.

The overall experience of actors with disabilities as noted in our survey is a negative one. They repeatedly echo the frustrations and struggles against the systemic discrimination they face in the television industry.



This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive casting, through the use of Computer Graphics (CG) to create ability, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing on the disability. We also provide a list of resources where actors with disabilities can be proactively reached.


PDF version available for download HERE
Text Only version available for download HERE 
Published in July 2016

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