Disability in Television: Who Was the First Disabled Person You Saw on Television?

To many a disabled television viewer, the only thing to identify with in these characters was the disability.
Dianna Agron, Kevin MacHale

In a recent impromptu survey of Twitter, I posited the question: Who was the first disabled character you recall seeing on television? I remember characters in wheelchairs popping up here and there, usually in reruns. I recall watching the “Teen Line” episode of “Saved By the Bell” — wherein Zach Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) goes on a blind date with a girl he meets on a teen chat line only to freak out because, gasp, she’s in a wheelchair — during summer vacation from school. But more often than not, these characters weren’t actual people, just conflicts meant to give a teachable moment to the able-bodied main leads.

I’m sure to many a disabled television viewer that’s all they were doing — viewing these characters, but not actually identifying with them because the only thing to identify with was the disability. Remember how, as a kid, your mom would say you should totally hang out with that one schoolmate because you both like music? Yep, that was being a disabled kid and seeing disability on television. So, with that being said, who was the first character in television I felt something passing for kinship with?

That’d probably be Bethany, the Australian girl in a wheelchair Eliza Thornberry befriends in the Season 3 episode “The New Territory” of “The Wild Thornberrys.” Animation has had an extensive utilization of disabled characters over the decades, mostly because of the desire to educate children early on the nature of difference. Several of the suggestions I got on Twitter were from animated television shows or children’s series like “Sesame Street.”

Seeing Bethany was different. For me, she was a girl who craved adventure, went out and sought it. If anything, it was Eliza (voiced by Lacey Chabert) who couldn’t handle Bethany’s nature, trying to squelch her fun under the guise of protection. Eliza Thornberry, the first ableist. But, even then, Bethany never came back to the series and her storyline was, once again, utilized to help Eliza realize she needed to calm down and treat people like actual people. Funny how that works.

In positing the question “Who was the first disabled person you saw on television” online I was surprised not just by the amount of responses — nearly 500 — but the generational spectrum of responses. Many wished they were more observant of characters prior to the last 10 years, and assumed they had to have seen a disabled character before the likes of Artie from “Glee” or Tyrion on “Game of Thrones.” However, all the responses had a character, either big or small, that they noticed.

Of the answers given the oldest show continuously brought up was 1967’s “Ironside,” wherein Raymond Burr played the detective of the same name who utilized a wheelchair. “Ironside” isn’t just an early example of a show starring a disabled character, it was also a show that discussed how Ironside got from A to B. It was one of the earliest shows, if not the first, to show a disabled car and wheelchair lift.

Geri Jewell presents an award at the 36th College Television Awards, presented by the Television Academy Foundation at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 23, 2015. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)
Geri JewellVince Bucci/Invision/AP

The majority of responses were shows from the 1970s and 1980s, such as “Good Times,” “The Golden Girls,” and “Saved By the Bell.” It’s unstated but assumed that many of the shows during this time focused on disability as a response to veterans returning home from Vietnam. Beth Haller says in a 2017 article published by Chapman University that studies conducted during 1970s and 1980s asked people how they felt seeing people with disabilities in television shows like “Mork and Mindy” and “Life Goes On.” (Fun fact, Chris Burke’s portrayal of Corky on the latter series was the second most cited response on Twitter, next to Geri Jewell from “Facts of Life.”)

The study showed that seeing characters with disabilities on television “created a non-threatening environment for participants, allowing them to shift their misconceptions and to accept accurate information about disability.” So if the intent is to present a non-threatening environment for participants why, after the passage of the ADA in 1990, did the portrayal of disabled characters take a downturn? Of the initial list I culled of Twitter responses, only 11 were from shows situated in the 1990s.

Furthermore, despite the repetition of the statistic that 20 percent of the population has a disability, the statistics of the Twitter polled skewed heavily towards white, male, and wheelchair user. Only one Black female character with a physical disability was listed at all, and of just the four deaf characters cited, all four were female but three of the four was white (the last being an animated character of color). How do these facts skew not just how audiences see disabled people, but how they see disabled people of color?

In a way, these facts aren’t surprising to disabled advocates and historians — but they showcase how despite an uptick in disabled representation on television, especially in comparison to film, the choices are still deliberately telling only part of the story. And, let’s not forget, nearly 75 percent of the suggestions were able-bodied actors playing disabled.

And, really, that’s just the start of this journey. The initial question: “Who was the first character with a disability you saw on television?” has become a launchpad for what will be a recurring series examining the history of disability in television. How have things changed and how far do they have to go?

We’ll attempt to connect how the off-screen world influenced what was shown on-screen and vice versa. Along the way we’ll provide insights from actors like “Little House on the Prairie” star Melissa Sue Anderson, whose work as the blind Mary Ingalls got her an Emmy nomination, and “Joan of Arcadia” star Jason Ritter to disabled actors working today like “Seinfeld” star Danny Woodburn and “Fear the Walking Dead” actor Daryl “Chill” Mitchell.

This series will attempt to breakdown the history of disability representation in television, going as far back as 1967’s “Ironside,” to look at how we’ve transitioned from able-bodied actors like Raymond Burr to disabled stars like R.J. Mitte of “Breaking Bad” to Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones.” Which disabilities were popular in the early decades of television and why? Why was the 1970s and 1980s more popular for disabled narratives while the 1990s saw a marked downturn? And, more importantly, how a generation of disabled people saw themselves (or didn’t).  It’s a tale both progressive and frustrating, simple yet necessary. Stay tuned.

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