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Why Unscripted TV Is Best Reflecting True Reality (Column)

Reality TV is the hope of the future.

As production costs boom, unscripted series offer templates of how to keep budgets under control. And while Hollywood loves to talk about diversity, people with disabilities (or PWD) are invisible on most films and TV shows, with the exception of reality TV, which focuses entire series on them and, equally important, includes them in its ongoing series.

TLC’s “Little People, Big World” is now in its 13th year, going strong after 300-plus episodes. A&E’s “Born This Way,” about people with Down syndrome, is beginning its fourth season. “Little Women: L.A.” is in its seventh season.

And nearly every competition series has included challenged people. ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” has spotlighted deaf individuals (e.g., Marlee Matlin and model Nyle DiMarco), amputees and burn patient J.R. Martinez (a military vet who, incidentally, won the competition).

NBC’s “The Voice” has featured singers who are blind, partially blind or partially deaf. The two most striking episodes of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” featured amputees. There have been PWD on “The Amazing Race,” “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Project Runway” and “The X Factor,” among others, while one of the investors/experts on ABC’s “Shark Tank” is Barbara Corcoran, who’s dyslexic.

The inclusion of these people is important because they’re treated as equals, and offer a reminder that it’s not a cookie-cutter world.

In contrast are scripted series. There are 57 million people with disabilities in America, and Hollywood has disappointed every one of them. The non-profit Ruderman Foundation offered a White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television. The study said disabled folks are nearly 20% of the U.S. population, but only 2% of characters in scripted TV. Of those TV characters with disabilities, 95% are played by able-bodied actors.

In the two years since the July 2016 Ruderman study, ABC has scored big with Sony TV’s “The Good Doctor” and 20th Century Fox TV’s “Speechless.” They center on PWD and they’re bringing in viewers: “Good Doctor” is one of the top-rated shows this season. But they are exceptions, barely starting a trend.

(Admittedly, movies are worse, such as the 2016 romance “Me Before You,” with the clear message is that it’s better to kill yourself than be disabled, and the upcoming “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” — yet another example of a non-PWD actor playing a person in a wheelchair.)

Hollywood, are you embarrassed yet?

Too many executives claim audiences might be “uncomfortable” at watching disabled people. Of course, they said the same thing about black action heroes until “Black Panther” came along, proving audiences are more sophisticated than Hollywood realizes.

TLC’s “Little People, Big World” is produced by Discovery Studios in association with Gay Rosenthal, who co-created the VH1 series “Behind the Music.” She initiated various reality series about individuals with disabilities, including “Push Girls,” about five friends in wheelchairs. But when pitching those concepts, she quickly discovered that “it made a lot of network executives uncomfortable.”

We are the most over-entertained people in the history of the world, with 24/7 entertainment fare on countless platforms. That’s fine, but audiences are hitting a saturation point. They want to hear new stories and discover new ways of looking at things. PWD should be a big part of that.

With 1990’s Americans With Disabilities Act under fire, depictions of challenged individuals are more important than ever. And Hollywood should remember: It’s not only honorable, it’s profitable.

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