6 Jun 2012

Script Reader Gripes: #3 Why aren't we writing disabled characters?

This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for some time. There have been a few reasons as to why it has taken me so long to get round to it. Firstly there was Christmas (I did say it had been a while!), then I had my tonsils out (ice cream is a myth by the way, warm mash potato does the trick) and then, well, it all started to feel quite difficult as a subject area to approach. I feared not being ‘PC’ enough or much worse, that perhaps I’d end up inadvertently insulting somebody (no I didn’t mean… sorry that wasn’t what I… etc.) And then I realised that this fear in itself is part of the problem as to why the topic of writing characters with disabilities is not being discussed, so here it is…  

The following contains quotes and thoughts that I took away from an informal TV meeting about 'Writing Disabled Characters'. I did not partake in the free wine but I did eat some crisps. 

“There was a time not that long ago when black people were not being represented in drama and comedy on our screens.” says a well-known writer. “We used to have to be very specific in our scripts that a character was black or Asian say, but recently I wrote a script and when I saw the final production, the casting department had cast black actors without any mention of colour or race being mentioned in the script at all and I thought, ‘Brilliant! Look how far we have come in representing real life and people equally!’ I guess when it comes to writing for disabled characters, it is a case of just doing it and putting these characters specifically in to scripts so that soon enough it becomes the norm as opposed to the exception.”

"I'm willing if she is." Ding dong Dinklage!
 (Tyrion Lannister, 'Game of Thrones.')
There are 10 million disabled people in the UK. That’s approximately 18% of the population. Statistics show that disabled characters are represented at 0.9% so the question being asked was – are disabled people being fairly represented in TV and radio? Erm, no as it turns out. I am sat in a room full of writers, producers, directors and TV folk, some of whom have a disability, who have come to answer any questions in an open and frank debate on the subject. It all starts with the script, so why are writers not writing disabled characters? And are they doing a good enough job when they do?

1) FEAR OF OFFENDING – with the Ricky Gervais debates about ‘Derek’ and ‘Life’s Too Short’ characters causing such a stir in the press, it is no wonder writers are fearful of writing characters who are seen as disabled. The media relish stories of how offensive these characters are and how Ricky should be ashamed of making jokes at the expense of someone else’s ‘misfortune’ but does this perhaps say more about the society we live in than it does about the disability being portrayed? A deaf lady at the event says she is fed up of disability being seen as an illness, because it’s only seen as an illness by people passing judgement on each other. Do writers then get too scared to write disabled characters for fear of offending? To take the path of avoiding writing for disabled characters at all or worse still, to simply not even think about it? When creating a character does the idea of disability even come into it? The whole four letter word beginning with ‘m’ debate with regards Gervais was clearly a very stupid and thoughtless thing to do and if he didn’t know so before he sure does now. But can we learn anything from his triumphs and mistakes? 

2) IGNORANCE – writers have the best tool of all - the ability to inspire and move people through the act of writing. And yet when it comes to disabilities writers seem to be too scared to go there when it all it takes is a bit of investigation and thought, a quick Google search and a phone call to a charity or organisation will get you all the answers you need. People in the disabled community are telling us writers that they are tired of disability being used as a device or watered down so it becomes a plot point. ‘Inflicting’ a disability on to a character like a punishment, seeing that character’s storyline become ‘flavour of the month’ only to then cure them or kill them off. When you stop and think about it, how often do you see a character go on to lead their life quite happily with a disability? Working, dating and doing all the things any other character ever gets to do?

"You idiot. I'm. Joey. Lucas." (West Wing)

A deaf gentleman tells me “When my phone rings at home, the lights flash on and off to tell me someone’s calling. If that was on TV there would be close ups of the lights flashing and it would be a big deal, but it’s just the phone ringing to me, it’s normal, it’s normal for a lot of deaf people. Sometimes how characters are written, it makes me feel like a victim of my disability but this is not how I feel in real life at all. I’m not a victim, the people that see me as such are a victim themselves of societies misconceptions about disability.” 

3) THE VICTIM OR VILLAIN CLICHÉ - Someone shouts out “I would like to see disabled characters on screen who are arseholes!” A female actress in a wheelchair replies “I’m dying to play a complete bitch, not another disabled person who is hard done by and angelic to boot.” Shocking news flash, disabled people are people who struggle with all the emotional choices we all do – so why do we continue to put disability before personality when developing characters and writing storylines?

(Tee Hee, James Bond - 'Live and Let Die')

On the flip side of course are those that use disability to portray villains, especially disabilities that have an outward, physical attribute. It would appear there are only ever extremes to be had when it comes to writing disabled characters. Perhaps James Bond antagonists are the best example of this. Yep, if you have a disability you are a victim or a villain, no wonder this meeting has been called, it’s starting to feel long overdue.

4) INCIDENTAL NOT ACCIDENTALWouldn’t it be something if a character just happened to be disabled. No big event in a script that causes the disability, just a character, looking for love and happiness, who incidentally is disabled.

Why could it not be the character of John, who has a wicked sense of humour, loves sci-fi, wants to be a doctor and has cerebral palsy, as opposed to John, the guy who has cerebral palsy, how sad? Have you thought that perhaps it isn’t sad at all for John? That John could kick your ass at the pub quiz, that he fancies your sister who fancies him back and he’s a drug dealer to the local kids? Is that a shocking thing to write? Shocking because he also happens to be disabled?

Disabled people are telling us that there of course are some things in life that are a bit different for them to go through. One lady with a disfigurement tells me “You know, I go on dates and guys turn up and see I am disabled. I can see it in their face and I say to them ‘if you can’t handle this, the disability, then that’s okay.’ Of course those without an obvious disability would not have to go through this type of rejection in quite the same way, but it’s still just rejection and it’s no big deal. I will go on another date and another just like anyone else, in fact I did and I met my husband because he saw me for me. Isn’t that the same for everyone? Looking past what people look like to get to know the real them?"

...your mind.
I can hear some resistance now ‘It’s all very well saying disabled people are the same but they’re not, are they. Not really. They need extra help with things sometimes and so stories with a disabled character in them will inevitably be written differently.’ Hmmmm… why do you suppose you think like this? Could it have anything to do with how disabilities are portrayed through media, tainting our world view? Is it perhaps time us writers challenged ourselves to think differently? What is ‘normal’ anyway? Wouldn’t it be something if society stopped seeing disabilities as ‘different’ and start seeing people as people. ‘…but we as writers are damned if we do and damned if we don’t! If I write a bad guy or a good guy who is disabled I will be seen as writing a stereotyped disabled character either way!’ Or maybe just write a character with depth, desires, dreams and goals, emotional vulnerabilities and an emotive journey to go on – a character is a character, whether disabled or not, let us feel empathy for humankind and not another story that wants its audience to feel ‘sorry’ for the ‘victim in the wheelchair’.      

5) DISABLED ACTORS – “When a non-disabled actor plays a disabled character everyone is like ‘well done, you’re great’ and they get given awards. When a disabled person plays a disabled character, people are like ‘they’re just playing themselves.’ So, what is acting exactly?”

Actress available; Female, blonde, age range 3 - 7.
A debate comes up in the meeting from a producer saying that there aren’t as many good, experienced disabled actors as she would really like to play the parts of disabled characters. Which raises two points… The first - this is a Catch 22 situation. If there were more parts written for disabled actors, there would be more disabled characters on our screens, then more disabled people would be encouraged to go to acting schools and see acting as a viable career – it all starts with the script. The second point is, why are casting departments not thinking of casting disabled actors in roles that have not been specifically written for a disabled character?  

Progress is being made but it’s slow and still has a long way to go. There is an audience of 10 million viewers out there who do not feel catered for. There is an opportunity for you to review how you currently write your characters, for your voice to be heard and maybe to even challenge society and media portrayal, making programmes and characters more accessible, change things for the better... you never know.

Wheelchair Rugby is awesome.

The meeting is coming to an end, “Why do we have the Olympics and the Paralympics?” someone asks me. “Why can’t we all just compete in the same stadium?” “I don’t know…” I reply. I’m embarrassed I have never thought to ask myself this question but instead have just always accepted it as the way things are. We can’t change the Olympics, but we can at least try to make sure we are all competing on the same page.  

Happy writing, reading and eating.



  1. I'm all for good examples, so check out...
    The Station Agent - Launched Peter Dinklage.
    Breaking Bad - Walter White Jr (RJ Mitte) suffers from cerebral palsy.
    Marlee Matlin who lost her hearing at 18 months can be seen in many TV dramas including West Wing, L Word and Celebrity Apprentice.

  2. Brilliant post. I've always been quite aware of this as I grew up closely with a number of disabled people.
    I think you're right in that the key is to just start writing scripts that feature disabled characters but without focusing on it too overtly.
    A good example, I think, is Four Weddings and a Funeral. Charles' brother, David, is deaf and so uses sign language to communicate, but it's not made to be a big deal. That's one of the strongest examples I can think of and that was 1994! Hopefully we'll start catching up a bit more...

  3. Breaking Bad also has Hector Salamanca who's in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak beyond ringing a bell; he's also a pivotal character in the whole of season 4 at least - and what's interesting is that he's shown as totally in control of his marbles. (In flashbacks he's walking and talking: superb acting and an interesting character development!) Using disability to illustrate the fragility of all humans is a good start point, rather than saying 'Oh, let's give this character Alzheimer's, then write them out'.

    Hank, Walt's DEA bro-in-law is crippled by gunshots for a season and-a-half. Kudos to Vince Gilligan.

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  5. "Have you thought that perhaps it isn’t sad at all for John? That John could kick your ass at the pub quiz, that he fancies your sister who fancies him back and he’s a drug dealer to the local kids?"

    That last twist had me laughing so hard XDD