18 Netflix Shows Committed to Representing People With Disabilities
According to a report published by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in August 2018, one in four adults have a disability. Unfortunately, only 2.1 percent of regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season actually had a disability, per a recent report from GLAAD. Disability representation includes characters with both visible and invisible disabilities — such as blindness, deafness, and genetic disorders, as well as those with mental challenges and illnesses — and we are far from having accurate representation in TV.
However, just like with racially diverse characters and LGBTQ+ characters, Netflix continues to push for inclusivity by incorporating characters with disabilities into its shows. Here are just 18 shows that are working to portray what it's like to live your life with a disability.
Based on the hilarious Ryan O'Connell's part-memoir, part-manifesto I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, this comedy series follows O'Connell's own challenges and triumphs as a gay man navigating the world with mild cerebral palsy. From having to begrudgingly accept help from his friend when he can't tie his new shoes to having a trailblazing sexual encounter with the sex worker he hired to help him lose his virginity, this show is never afraid to explore the complications of falling somewhere between able-bodied and disabled.
The Healing Powers of Dude
This family-friendly series revolves around an 11-year-old boy navigating public school for the first time alongside his emotional support dog, Dude, who helps Noah manage his social anxiety disorder. Noah is also supported by his best friend Amara, who uses a wheelchair due to her muscular dystrophy. Rather than ever framing either character as an object of pity, this sweet, lighthearted show works as a vehicle for families to discuss and better understand both visible and invisible disabilities.
This coming-of-age series follows Sam Gardner, a teenager on the autism spectrum who decides that he's ready to shake off his doting parents and gain some independence — especially in his love life. As he experiences everything from his first girlfriend to his first job, and eventually, his first college classes, Atypical is both heartwarming and hilarious. Though actor Keir Gilchrist is not on the autism spectrum himself, the series started incorporating actors who are actually on the spectrum in season two, giving the series new depth and complexity.
Based on a short film and comic book by Dennis Liu, this sci-fi series tells the story of a single mother attempting to hide the superhuman abilities of her son, Dion, which start to manifest following the death of her scientist husband. While Dion himself has extraordinary powers, the real star of the show is his sassy classmate Esperanza, who has osteogenesis imperfecta (a rare genetic disorder more commonly known as brittle bone disease) and uses a wheelchair. Though she's overlooked by her classmates, Dion and Esperanza form a close bond as Esperanza looks out for Dion and he, in turn, sees her as a talented artist and a good friend rather than someone who looks different from everyone else.
The hilariously awkward series Sex Education revolves around Otis, an inexperienced high-school student who decides to team up with bad girl Maeve and open an underground sex therapy clinic at school, thanks to the advice bestowed on him by his sex therapist mother. Though Otis is able-bodied, one of season two's new cast members, Isaac, uses a wheelchair, just like the actor who portrays him, George Robinson. Maeve finds a match in Isaac's quick wit, which he uses to downplay potentially awkward situations, like when he, Maeve, and Otis attend a party and he can't navigate the stairs. In this way, Isaac simply becomes another character, rather than a character whose defining feature is his wheelchair.
One Day at a Time
This clever sitcom reboot of the classic Norman Lear series revolves around a Cuban-American family following the matriarch Penelope's divorce as they navigate life's challenges together. During season one, army vet Penelope is reluctant to admit to her family that she struggles with anxiety, depression, and PTSD (as mental illness tends to be stigmatized in the Cuban community), but she is able to open up about her battle more in season two. In a particularly moving episode, Penelope goes off her meds and stops attending therapy in order to hide her struggles from a new boyfriend, and the resulting fallout demonstrates just how necessary proper care is for someone living with mental illness.
Like Penelope in One Day at a Time, the titular character in Jessica Jones suffers from PTSD, and instead of simply insinuating this through flashbacks, Jessica's PTSD is acknowledged and named in the very first episode, when it is discovered that she has stopped seeing her therapist. Rather than using Jessica's disorder as a crutch or a justification for being an antihero, Jessica experiences very real side effects and struggles, which she attempts to ignore with destructive means of self-medication. You wouldn't think a Marvel series would provide a breakthrough in the representation of PTSD, but Jessica Jones does just that.
In this eerie YA series, a group of teens return to their affluent New England town after a field trip to find that all of their parents are missing and they're totally cut off from the rest of the world — a situation that seems awesome at first, but quickly turns deadly. A fan favorite on the show is deaf character Sam, played by an actor who's deaf in real life, Sean Berdy. Though Sam can speak, and his closest friends and his older brother can communicate with him through ASL, Sam largely relies on lip-reading to understand those who don't know ASL. The show does an excellent job of portraying what that's like, and uses humor at times, like when Sam's new boyfriend Grizz accidentally starts to teach himself BSL (British Sign Language) rather than ASL.
In every episode of this reality show, the Fab Five — which is composed of Tan France, Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, and Karamo Brown — help new participants (or "heroes") turn around their lives, helping them improve their knowledge of fashion, food and wine, interior design, grooming, and culture. They've helped participants with a variety of backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations, but one of the most moving episodes was when they helped reformed bad boy Wesley Hamilton, who wants to flourish and improve his life after becoming paralyzed. The team pushes his emotional boundaries, helps him find a wardrobe that flatters him while taking into account his wheelchair, and modifies his home to make it more accessible to him so that he can live his best life from his wheelchair, regardless of new challenges that come with this major life change.
This Ryan Murphy-produced dark comedy follows the tale of a wealthy Santa Barbara-based student who will do just about anything to become student-body president of his high school. It features a diverse cast of characters — including a gender nonconforming person of color, a deaf Black actress, a transgender actor, and an actor with cerebral palsy — and what's so refreshing is that no one at the school treats these differences like a big deal. Even though Andrew (played by Ryan Haddad, who has cerebral palsy in real life) uses crutches, little attention is paid to his physicality, which is almost unseen in mainstream media.
This insanely popular sci-fi series follows an adolescent crew living in 1980s Indiana as they discover supernatural forces, secret government threats, and a young girl with telekinetic powers. One of the cast's main characters, Dustin, has cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD), a rare genetic disorder affecting the development of the bones and teeth, but this is treated as a fact of life by his friends rather than something that will other him. Actor Gaten Matarazzo has CCD in real life, and his character is upfront about his disorder (even when he's forced to defend himself against bullies who mock his toothless lisp). In this way, Matarazzo is able to provide awareness to CCD both through his character and as an actor.
Set in the distant future, this Brazilian dystopian series revolves around two communities: the impoverished Inland, and the 3 percent of the population who are lucky enough to live in a virtual paradise known as the Offshore. Fernando, a character with a wheelchair, is notably one of the only candidates with a disability in the 104th Process, which sparks controversy, as other candidates don't believe Fernando can successfully complete the Process. Though actor Michel Gomes is not himself a wheelchair user, he still does an excellent job of portraying Fernando's struggle and determination in the face of adversity.
Starring Kaya Scodelario (whom you might know better as Effy Stonem from Skins), this drama revolves around a competitive ice skater who — after taking a devastating fall during a competition — attempts to make a comeback by teaming up with a new partner. Accurately portraying mental illness without relying on tropes is difficult, but Spinning Out succeeds in depicting Kat's bipolar disorder in a way that is sensitive and nuanced. Kat's mother Carol (played by January Jones) also has bipolar disorder, and the frequent conversations these two have about their triggers and fears help to depict and explore the shame and stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
Unlike Kaya Scodelario or January Jones, Lady Dynamite star Maria Bamford was actually diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and OCD, which makes her performance feel more genuine. Similar to Special, Lady Dynamite is loosely based on Bamford's own life as a stand-up comedian, following her attempt to rebuild her career after spending six months in recovery for her bipolar disorder. While this show was canceled way too soon after only two seasons, it offers the perfect balance of humor and poignancy to portray life with bipolar disorder, showing how Bamford manages to cope and even triumph.
AJ and the Queen
RuPaul stars in this comedy as Robert/Ruby Red, a drag queen who's fallen on bad times, compelling the queen to go on a cross-country road trip in a run-down RV alongside an 11-year-old orphan stowaway named AJ. Though Ruby Red is certainly a big personality, the queen is given a run for her money by Louis/Cocoa Butter, Robert's roommate and fellow drag queen, who is blind due to a diabetic stroke. Actor Michael-Leon Wooley is not blind himself, which led to some backlash, but Louis still acts as a multifaceted and willfully independent character who refuses to put limits on himself because of his blindness.
Based on the Norwegian TV show of the same name, this dark comedy follows two strangers (played by Jonah Hill and Emma Stone) in near-future NYC who participate in a pharmaceutical drug trial, hoping to escape their inner demons. Owen and Annie suffer from paranoid schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, respectively, though rather than using their mental illnesses as a punchline, the show handles their struggles with sensitivity and works to challenge the idea of what's "normal." Together, Owen and Annie travel through several dream-like experiences, where the challenges accurately reflect what someone with their often-misunderstood diagnoses might face.
Another revolutionary Marvel series, Daredevil revolves around a NYC lawyer whose blindness allows his four other senses to be heightened to a superhuman degree. After Daredevil debuted, Matthew Murdock quickly became one of the most prominent characters with a disability in the media, and after initial criticism, Netflix even added audio commentary to the program in order to make it more enjoyable for blind audiences. While he impressively fights crime by night, some of the most compelling moments in the series occur during the day, as Matthew navigates the world as an ordinary blind man, using electronic devices as aids and his best friend Foggy as a frequent guide. Actor Charlie Cox may not be blind himself, but he has still been lauded for his thoughtful and nuanced performance.
This dark series follows a Chicago financial adviser named Marty who is forced into money laundering in the Missouri Ozarks — and who takes his family along with him. A fan favorite on the show is Tuck, played by actor Evan George Vourazeris, who has Down syndrome. Tuck is an employee at the Blue Cat, the local bar and hotel, and he becomes the first friend of Marty's 13-year-old son, Skylar, in the Ozarks. Skylar never treats Tuck as someone other than who he is: a boy who offered Skylar friendship when he needed it.