Becky Jackson from GleeRemember when you were a kid, and the major network shows were just brimming with characters who represented the special needs community? What, you don't remember? Maybe that's because we've had to come a long way since Corky, the kid with Down syndrome on Life Goes On, represented television's biggest leap in character casting back in the '80s.
Twenty percent of Americans have some sort of disability, and television show producers are finally getting the hint. While it's still a struggle for parents to find special needs kids represented on primetime -- by one estimate, only 1 percent of speaking roles go to an actor portraying some sort of disability -- they are out there. And you should be watching! Just take a look:
Glee -- The Fox hit has become a darling for its portrayal of kids of all shapes and sizes, but for parents, the standouts may just be Artie and Becky. Artie is, of course, in a wheelchair, a fact often written into storylines to present the challenges of being a paraplegic teenager in high school. Although producers have gotten flack for giving the job to Kevin McHale, who is not actually paraplegic, the writers have made it a point to give Artie's struggles more depth of late, rather than using the chair as a prop. And then there's Becky, a girl with Down syndrome who is played by Lauren Potter, an actress with Down syndrome who is also on the President's Committee for People With Intellectual Disabilities. Bashing stereotypes left and right as the sidekick to conniving Cheerios coach Sue Sylvester, Becky's also face of the Glee campaign to end the use of the derogatory word "retard" as an insult in every day speech.
Switched at Birth -- An ABC Family show about two teenagers who found out they were -- wait for it -- switched at birth (you're shocked, I know), this is the rare primetime show that dares to feature entire chunks of silence. That's because characters are using American Sign Language, the means main characters Daphne and Emmett use to communicate with each other and often with the world around them. Emmett is played by Sean Berdy, a teenager who was born deaf. His mom is portrayed by hearing-impaired actress Marlee Matlin, while actress Katie Leclerc who plays Daphne has Meniere's Disease, which can render her completely deaf on some days, allow her to hear perfectly on others.
Parenthood -- In a world where 1 in 110 kids is on the autism spectrum, it was about time we saw some on television. Every Tuesday evening, NBC brings us the story of the Braverman family, including 8-year-old Max, a kid with Asperger's. Watching parents Christina and Adam come to terms with the diagnosis and in turn deal with the world around them has struck a chord in the autism community, where often it's difficult to convey why their child doesn't act the way society thinks they "should."
Teen Mom 2 -- MTV put cameras in Leah Messer's home to bring the world the story of a teenage girl trying to make it as a mom -- a mom of twins no less. But you can't plan reality. In addition to getting a fly on the wall look at the life of a teen mom, viewers have also gotten a chance to see the all-too-frustrating process of diagnosing a child with a special need. Little Aliannah Simms was born premature, and at just 1 years old has already been through MRIs, given glasses to correct a vision problem, begun in-home physical therapy, and been fitted for special braces for her feet. Her parents still don't have a clear diagnosis from the doctor for their daughter's issues.
The Secret Life of an American Teenager -- A fictionalized account of teen motherhood that airs on ABC Family, this teen drama is the screenhome to actor Luke Zimmerman. He has Down syndrome and plays Tom Bowman, a teenager whose disability doesn't stop him from being one of the most level-headed kids on the show.
Breaking Bad -- The AMC drama about a dad with terminal cancer taking a walk on the wild side to ensure financial security for his family wouldn't be complete without that family -- and that includes son Walt Jr., a teen with mild cerebral palsy. Played by RJ Mitte, who also has cerebral palsy, the Walt Jr. role was written to honor a disabled friend of the show's creator, but it has opened doors for Mitte, giving other directors a chance to see beyond his disability.
Has your child identified with a special needs character on TV, or have you?
Image via Fox