Actor Danny Woodburn played Kramer's friend Mickey on many "Seinfeld" episodes. Actor Danny Woodburn played Kramer's friend Mickey on many "Seinfeld" episodes. Actor Danny Woodburn played Kramer's friend Mickey on many "Seinfeld" episodes. (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images)

How one group is trying to help disabled actors in Hollywood

A new study shows that 95% of disabled characters on TV are played by able-bodied actors. Here's how one 'Seinfeld' actor is making his voice heard.

Millions of fans of the hit TV show "Glee" watched each week as actor and singer Kevin McHale portrayed the lovable character of Artie Abrams, a wheelchair-bound high school student. But what might surprise many of those viewers is that McHale is not disabled in real life. Indeed, a new study released this week found that 95% of disabled TV characters in the top 10 TV shows are played by actors without disabilities.

The research was organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy organization focusing on the full inclusion of people with disabilities into society. With staff in Boston and in Jerusalem, the foundation provides funding, leadership, expertise and insight in both the U.S. and Israel.

Sheryl Grossman, a disability rights advocate, told From The Grapevine that she's happy with the attention the new study is getting. "I think if more people hear about and are aware of this issue, hopefully, it'll lead to a time when those with disabilities have more acceptance – both on TV and in society," she said.

The report was co-authored by the foundation's Kristina Kopić as well as actor Danny Woodburn, who portrayed Kramer's friend Mickey on "Seinfeld." Woodburn says the study is "our attempt to bring perspective to inclusion, to reinforce access and an understanding of authenticity as an expression of what true diversity means and to finally let the least represented group in this medium be heard.”

Woodburn and Jay Ruderman, the president of the foundation, co-wrote an op-ed this week in the Los Angeles Times about their findings.

"We’re not absolutists. We don’t believe that every single character with a disability needs to be played by an actor with a disability. But if we’re going to employ computer graphics and makeup to create the illusion of disability, then we should also be willing to do the reverse," they wrote. "For example, in movies that center around a sudden disability caused by an accident, such as paraplegia, studios could employ CG to make a wheelchair using actor able-bodied for the parts of the movie that call for it."

They also point to another problem: Studios rarely hire actors with disabilities if the plot doesn't specifically emphasize disability. "In show after show, people of color play roles where their race is not the focus of the story, so why can’t actors with disabilities play roles that neither hide nor emphasize their disability? The doctor who uses a wheelchair, the waiter who has a prosthetic leg, the scientist who has cerebral palsy." Indeed, people with disabilities make up 20% of the general population, but fewer than 1% of TV characters.

Kevin McHale, an able-bodied actor, portrayed a wheelchair-bound high school student on the hit TV show "Glee."Kevin McHale, an able-bodied actor, portrayed a wheelchair-bound high school student on the hit TV show "Glee." (Photo: Fox)

Disability advocates point to examples like Joey Lucas on "The West Wing," played by deaf actress Marlee Matlin. While Joey is deaf, it's not the only thing, or even the most important thing, about her character.

The Ruderman Family Foundation is not the only Israeli advocacy group helping enhance the lives of the disabled. The Beit Issie organization also has several projects in the works that they've been implementing worldwide.

As for their new findings about the TV industry, the foundation has released a 38-page report examining the issue. In it, they offer several ways studios can better work with the disabled community, including the counterintuitive suggestion to write more scripts where disability is not the central theme of the character. "Consider the countless characters who are played by women where the fact that they are a woman is not the focus of their story," they wrote. "We need to see more actors with disabilities in roles that don’t emphasize their disability, but where the disability is just a matter-of-fact."

The foundation plans to host a conference this fall in Hollywood. The goal of the event is to bring the major studio representatives together for a conversation on how to help actors with disabilities be better represented across the television spectrum.


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