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It’s no secret that television programming offers a skewed image of our diverse society—one that’s whiter, straighter and more male. For example, 43% of characters on the 2015-16 cable and broadcast TV season were women, while in real life women make up roughly half of the population. But the small screen is doing better than it used to. In the 2014-15 season, for instance, only 40% of characters were women, meaning that the 43% figure last year was an improvement. We’re also seeing more gay and lesbian characters, more transgender characters, more characters of color.

We’re actually seeing improvement in all categories, except for one: people with disabilities.

While 18.7% of Americans live with a disability, the share of characters with disabilities dropped from 1.4% to 0.9% on broadcast programming from 2014-15 to 2015-16.

What’s even more outrageous is the fact that actors without disabilities are so often chosen to portray the few characters with disabilities. Recently we looked at the top 10 scripted TV shows on cable and broadcasting networks for the 2015-16 season. In these shows, using the broadest evolving definition of disability, there were 20 characters who had a disability—either physical or psychological—while only one out of the 20 actors had one. That comes out to 5%.

Consider “Glee”, a TV show unmistakably self-satisfied with its inclusiveness. Its makers would never have considered having Rachel, the female lead, played by a man in drag. They would not have considered having Mercedes, the most prominent black character, played by a white actress in blackface. But when they cast Artie, the main disabled character, they chose an able-bodied actor and had him sit in a wheelchair and ape the appearance of a disabled person.

Women have a right to be represented onscreen by women. Just as people of color have a right to represented onscreen by people of color. And just as people with disabilities have a right to be represented onscreen by people with disabilities.

Exposure to people with disabilities would help influence audiences towards greater acceptance and greater support towards disabilities and people with disabilities.

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Non-disabled actor Kevin McHale sitting in a wheelchair

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