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8 TV Actors Who Helped Increase Authentic Disability Representation Last Year

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Hollywood prides itself on staying attuned to issues, releasing content and creating discussion around important, relevant topics of the day. But in one are the industry still needs a lot of growth: representation of characters with disabilities.

A new report released by GLAAD shows that inclusion of characters with disabilities grew in 2020, but only marginally. Out of 773 series regular characters on broadcast scripted series, just 3.5% of them have a disability. That’s an increase from 2019’s number of 3.1%, but still only amounts to 27 characters overall who have a disability.

Eighteen of those are in shows that air on NBC, which represents 12% of the channel’s series regular stars. Included in that list are characters dealing with mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. According to the U.S. Census, 13.3% of people in the country live with a disability, which includes people with cancer, HIV and AIDS, and PTSD.

Other networks don’t fare so well when studied. ABC and CBS each have three characters with disabilities, while the CW has two and Fox counts only one. In aggregate, cable stations include eight characters with disabilities, amounting to 7% of their characters overall. Streaming services feature only one.

Disability advocates have long pushed for more opportunities for actors with disabilities to portray a variety of roles. The Ruderman Family Foundation released a white paper detailing that effort, revealing that only 5% of all roles for characters with disabilities are played by disabled people.

We turn to television to be entertained but also to grow our knowledge about the world around us. Nobody is in a better position to portray the life of someone with a disability than an individual who actually lives it. Representation is vital for the opportunities it provides, but also for the edification of viewers.

Actors with disabilities who portray characters with disabilities are giving some of the best work on today’s television. Here are few who likely were included in GLAAD’s analysis you may know of or want to put on your list to watch:

1. Micah Fowler (‘Speechless,’ JJ DiMeo)


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Like his character, Fowler has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. While Fowler can speak, the character of JJ cannot and uses a speech generating device. The character of JJ is richly drawn and showcases how someone with cerebral palsy navigates school, relationships, and life.

2. Shoshannah Stern (‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Dr. Lauren Riley)


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Stern and Riley are both Deaf. The focus on “Grey’s Anatomy,” however, is on Riley’s skills as a doctor who blazes in and takes control when things seem lost. The show chose not to make her deafness the center of attention since it believes diversity stands on its own merits, according to Paste. She also returned to “Supernatural” this past season.

3. Ryan O’Connell (‘Special,’ Ryan Hayes)


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Based on O’Connell’s memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” the Netflix show centers on a young, gay Los Angeles man navigating life and love with cerebral palsy. Variety called the character “revolutionary…also quick and snarky, deeply insecure and sometimes more selfish than he’s willing to admit.”

4. Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell (‘NCIS: New Orleans,’ Patton Plame)


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Mitchell was involved in a motorcycle accident in 2001 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His role on “NCIS: New Orleans” as a computer specialist allows him to show off his wit, style, and incredible mind. While Plame’s disability is readily visible, it’s rarely the focus. The show chooses to put showcase all the character, and actor, can do so well.

5. Meredith Eaton (‘Macgyver,’ Matty Webber)


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Eaton, a short-stature actress, has a strong presence on the CBS series. In her role as director of operations for the Phoenix Foundation she is tough and no-nonsense with peers and agents alike. She’s a complex person though, and moments of graceful humanity highlight her love for work and those she leads.

6. Gavin McHugh (‘9-1-1,’ Christopher Diaz)


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McHugh, who has cerebral palsy, plays the son of firefighter Eddie Diaz (Ryan Anthony Guzman). The series not only depicts the younger Diaz’s daily life with the condition, it also shows the struggles some families go through to get the services and care their loved one needs.

7. Cole Sibus (‘Stumptown,’ Ansel Parios)


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Sibus plays the brother of lead character Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders) am ex-military private investigator. The show is a touching portrayal of the work, life, and love of a person with Down syndrome. The bond between Ansel and Dex and the ways Ansel succeeds in life are central themes.

8. Kayla Cromer (‘Everythings Gonna’ Be Okay,’ Matilda)


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Cromer revealed that she, like her character, is on the autism spectrum during a press event in advance of the show’s debut. “I never thought I was even funny before playing Matilda,” Cromer said. “But my acting coach convinced me by saying, ‘Kayla, I think you’re capable of comedy because frankly, your quirks resemble those of Sheldon Cooper.’” It’s rare to see autistic girls portrayed on television, and Matilda’s character showcases the way she navigates relationships, love and family.

For more information on disability and to connect with others, visit The Mighty’s disability community.

Header images via Instagram

Originally published: January 20, 2021
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