This TV Season, Shows About Disability Are Gaining Prominence
Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.
As diversity takes on a more important focus in Hollywood, disability is gaining prominence as four shows, two new, premiere this week: “Young Sheldon” (Season One) on CBS and “The Good Doctor” (Season One) on ABC Monday, “This Is Us” (Season Two) on NBC on Tuesday and “Speechless” (Season Two) on ABC on Wednesday evening.
Every season, networks premiere new shows in hopes of increasing their viewership. In recent years, the fight for ratings has included the need for expanding diversity – with shows like “Black-ish” receiving eight Emmy nominations in the past two years, including for Outstanding Comedy Series both years.
Yet while there has been an increased focus on diversity when it comes to race, gender and sexual identity, the same has not been true for disability. Shows like “Young Sheldon” and “The Good Doctor” show the trend may be changing.
Just last week at the 69th Emmy Awards, Chairman of the Television Academy Hayma Washington spoke about the importance of diversity, including disability in his conversation.
“We are all part of something very special that truly matters,” Washington said. “Most of all, it matters because it shows the world two core values defining our industry today: the quality and inclusiveness of our work. Inclusion is defining television more and more. When it comes to issues of creed, color or disability, of sexual orientation or gender identity, the Television Academy embraces you and the stories you choose to create. The face of creativity is changing.”
He then shared a clip that focused on the Academy’s diversity and inclusion efforts. While there was a focus on transgender, racial and gender equality, the clip opened with video showing actors with disabilities: “Speechless’” Micah Fowler and “Born This Way’s” John Tucker, Rocco Keller, Rachel Osterbach, Cristina Sanz and Elena Ashmore.
“The inclusion of John, Cristina and Elena is so important because even though people of all races, genders and sexual orientation have disabilities, the media tends to only show white characters,” “Born This Way” Producer Jonathan Murray said. “Just like Rocco and Rachel, John, Cristina and Elena have Down syndrome, but they also are the first individuals from the African American, Hispanic and Asian community with a disability to earn an Emmy.”
“But there is still a lack of accurate disability representation in scripted television,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi added. “’Speechless’ Micah Fowler is important because so few characters with disabilities are actually played by actors with disabilities and Micah actually has cerebral palsy. We are delighted to see additional shows with a focus on positive portrayals of disability this season.”
With the season premiere of four shows, two of them new, touching on disability this week, and more in the next month, the face of disability on television is changing as well. Here are the upcoming series or season premieres:
“The Good Doctor,” ABC
As the Los Angeles Times points out, “Monday brings to broadcast television two series about socially awkward, misfit young geniuses — characters ‘on the spectrum,’ in the now much-used phrase, though only one is identified outright as such.”
In “The Good Doctor,” Freddie Highmore stars as Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome. Highmore does not have autism himself. In the show, Murphy’s social deficits are highlighted, leading to bullying.
There are successful surgeons with autism and other disabilities in the real world and ABC has highlighted this in a 20/20 presentation, including Dr. Tyler Sexton, a pediatrician with cerebral palsy. ABC will use the short segment on Sexton, and profiles on other doctors with disabilities, as companion pieces to the new show.
This autism-focused show follows the August release of “Atypical,” a half-hour show on Netflix presented from the perspective of a teen with autism seeking independence. This show had mixed reviews from the autism community.
“The Good Doctor” was developed by David Shore (“House”) and actor Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0”) from a South Korean series of the same name. The series premieres tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET on ABC.
“Young Sheldon,” CBS
“Young Sheldon” is a spin-off prequel to “The Big Bang Theory,” following the life of 9-year-old Sheldon Cooper before becoming the theoretical physicist he is as an adult. Jim Parsons won an Emmy for his portrayal of adult Sheldon, who is never diagnosed on either show but fits the profile of a twice-exceptional character.
The term twice exceptional, often abbreviated as 2e, entered educators’ lexicon in the mid-1990s and refers to intellectually gifted children who have some form of disability. These children are considered exceptional both because of their intellectual gifts and because of their disability.
In this new show, a child prodigy with a genius level IQ, young Sheldon is about to enter high school. Alienated from his community, he has multiple social limitations without the support needed in 1989 East Texas.
Created by Chuck Lorre (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom)” and Steven Molaro, “Young Sheldon” premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS before moving to its regular time slot on Thursdays beginning Nov. 2, 2017.
“This Is Us,” NBC
“This Is Us” is returning for a second season after finishing season one on a cliffhanger, forcing audience members to ponder the future of one of the show’s most central couples, Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia, and Rebecca, played by Mandy Moore, the parents of the “Big Three.”
Not only did creator and show runner Dan Fogelman bring the suspense and drama last season; he also shed light on important issues that often go unspoken in today’s society: obesity and mental health. One of the adult triplets portrayed on the show, Chrissy Metz, struggles with her weight both on and off of the camera. In the first season, as the character Kate, she vows to lose weight in order to better her health. In the show, Metz falls in and out of love and addresses family drama all with the underlying story of her weight loss journey through a lens of body positivity.
Sterling K. Brown, who just won an Emmy for his portrayal of Randall, another one of the adult triplets, is making his way through fatherhood, his job and life with anxiety. According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder. Brown’s character has a panic attack toward the end of the first season and, in that moment, is representing almost 20 percent of the population.
These portrayals in “This Is Us” help to break down stigmas about health, both physical and mental. Viewers can resonate with its story lines because they portray viewers’ lives every single day.
Season Two of “This Is Us” premiers Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 9:00 p.m. on NBC.
In the second season of “Speechless,” Micah Fowler plays J.J., a high school student with cerebral palsy. The show revolves around his everyday life as well as his family and friends.
J.J., the oldest sibling, uses assisted technology as well as his aide Kenneth to speak. The first season tackled issues such as “inspiration porn” and the desire to live an independent life as an individual with a disability. “Speechless” shows the family growing together while facing obstacles.
More than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television are played by actors without disabilities. Fowler bucks that trend and is one of the rare actors in Hollywood who has a disability.
Season Two of “Speechless” will premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 27 on ABC 8:30 p.m. ET.
Check out these additional returning shows of interest:
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” The CW
The third season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” starts off with the main character Rebecca Bunch reacting to being left at the alter by her new fiancé and old camp boyfriend, Josh Chan.
Writer, producer and actress Rachel Bloom says of her character, “She is going into this season saying, ‘I am a sexy, strong woman scorned.’”
The show follows the life of Bunch, a successful lawyer who has both anxiety and depression. After an anxiety attack and a run-in with Chan, Bunch follows him to West Covina, Calif. As the show progresses, viewers learn more about how the main character tries to manage a healthy professional and personal life in her new home.
Bloom has anxiety herself. She’s written an essay in Glamour about her anxiety and recently participated in the Child Mind Institute’s My Younger Self campaign, giving advice to her younger self about living with anxiety and depression. In the show, her character will get an official diagnosis this season.
Season Three of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premieres on The CW on Friday, Oct. 13 at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Coming into its eighth season, “Shameless” follows a large, dysfunctional family in the south side of Chicago. The second-oldest brother in the family, Ian, has bipolar disorder. At the end of the last season, his mother Monica dies, which leads to a storyline about how Ian deals with it in the upcoming season.
“Ian is struggling,” Executive Producer John Wells said. “He’s sort of surprised by it, but she was sort of his touchstone, and they were very close at times.”
Ian’s father is an alcoholic and the entire family, including Ian’s five siblings, are constantly getting into trouble with the law while struggling with paying utility bills and rent on their house.
Season Eight of “Shameless” premieres on Showtime on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 9:00 p.m. ET.
Which shows relating to disability are you excited about watching this season? Let us know in the comments.
RespectAbility Communications Fellows Theresa Maher, Katie Townes and Julia Ann Wood contributed to this piece.