9 Amazing Chronically Ill and Disabled Characters on Television

Jessica Richmond Woods
6 min readSep 29, 2018

It is officially Television Premiere season and it has honestly always been one of my favorite things about Fall. You can judge me all you want to because I have television characters to keep me company. Being sick all the time means that sometimes those fictional universes are a lot more real to you than the world outside your door. You might not be able to get out of bed that day but that doesn’t stop you from transporting to Westeros or a desert island or downtown Baltimore. Television has always been a source of comfort for me and I absolutely love seeing the less than 100% “normal” people represented. Whether that’s disability or illness doesn’t matter because I love seeing “real” life reflected in the fictional. So here is the list of my favorite performances on television concerning people with less than perfect health:

Anxiety — Sterling K. Brown, Randall Pearson, This Is Us

This is by far the most accurate portrayal of a panic attack I have ever seen in any medium. For anyone that has ever experienced a panic attack, I think this scene will resonate with you in exceptional ways, and for those who haven’t, I think it really shines a light on just how scary it can be. To see a strong, capable man like Randall, who has a tough job he excels at and is an amazing father, completely break down was something you don’t get to see every day on television and I absolutely applaud it. I cried along with Randall in this scene because it was oh so familiar.

Cerebral Palsy — Micah Fowler, JJ DiMeo, Speechless

For a long time, I only knew Speechless as “Minnie Driver’s new show” and that was honestly how it was marketed. The show did not scream from the rooftops “this is a show about a kid with cerebral palsy” because it wasn’t. It’s a show about a family and one of the sons just happens to have cerebral palsy. I love the portrayal of how much more difficult life can be at times but also just how much in common we all have. Also, shoutout for actually casting an actor with cerebral palsy to play JJ.

Chronic Pain — Hugh Laurie, Dr. Gregory House, House

So Dr. House is not exactly someone you would want to emulate in every way (drug addiction in particular), but Hugh Laurie does provide a very realistic portrayal of someone with chronic pain. Though not everyone would react by becoming a pill-popping loose cannon, I think his short-fuse is very typical of someone who is literally on their last nerve. One of the main things I admire about Dr. House though is that his life is not entirely revolving around this pain. The pain is always there and it’s never going to go away but he doesn’t just sit around talking about it 24/7, he perseveres.

Memory Loss & Brain Fog — Ellen DeGeneres, Dory, Finding Nemo & Finding Dory

I know this is a movie but I’m throwing it in here anyway because I love her so much! There has been some debate about whether Dory’s memory loss is played too heavily for laughs in the Finding Nemo series. I, however, find the character of Dory extremely charismatic and a perfect spokesperson for those with memory problems. I first started suffering memory problems after my seizures and honestly, the only thing that made me feel even slightly better about it was being compared to Dory. Forget a whole day of your life? Don’t worry, Dory did too. She even forgot her parents but don’t get me started on that unless you want to see me ugly cry.

Partial Paralyzation & Chronic Pain — Lindsey Morgan, Raven Reyes, The 100,

Raven Reyes is a badass. She’s a spacewalking, technologically ingenious badass with too many awesome qualities to count. Honestly, most of the characters on The 100 are too cool to be real but I think the thing that makes her one of my favorite characters is her absolute refusal to be treated differently because of her injury. She’s even gone so far as to forgive the person who shot her in the first place and caused her to walk with a limp for the rest of her life. This scene here is one of the most character-building ones in my opinion as it has her realizing her limitations for the first time. She’s so used to fixing everything by herself that she’s finally realizing she might actually need help with things now.

Diabetes — Kerris Dorsey, Paige Whedon, Brothers & Sisters

While this show definitely took the viewpoint from the parents of a girl with diabetes rather than show it from Paige’s point-of-view, I think they portrayed a very impactful moment. I think hearing from the parents who blamed themselves gives a very different perspective on a disease that’s extremely misunderstood. Until this happened to them, Paige was a healthy little girl who didn’t eat too much junk food and exercised frequently. I think simply showing that diabetes can affect anyone really helped open the viewer's eyes. Sorry, no video for this one guys!

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — Bea Arthur, Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls

I love doctors, I think that most of them are great, wonderful people who are trying everything in their power to help. However, I think anyone who has ever had a chronic illness has definitely encountered the doctor who dismissed everything you’ve told them. Dorothy from The Golden Girls went through this in an episode about her chronic fatigue syndrome. Sure, the symptoms, dismissal, and diagnosis all happen within one episode when it could take other people years to find an answer, but this is television. And this bit of television really touches on something that a lot of people have to deal with: denial from medical professionals.

Paralyzation — Scott Porter, Jason Street, Friday Night Lights,

So television shows do tend to go for the more dramatic illnesses and disabilities and what’s more dramatic than the star quarterback being paralyzed from the chest down in the pilot episode? Oh, right, spoilers. But come on, it came out twelve years ago and you should have already seen this show. If you haven’t, I’m just disappointed in you. Honestly, I think the most impactful part of Jason’s journey is not when he first gets paralyzed, but when he tries to go to Mexico for experimental surgery. It really shows how desperate he is to have his old life back and the lengths he’s willing to go to be the star again. His journey through being injured and angry about to eventually accepting his life outside of football is one of the most amazing journeys any character goes through. Also, please excuse the video quality, it was the only video I could find of him getting injured.

Congenital Hip Dysplasia — Laura Innes, Dr. Kerry Weaver, ER,

I’m going to end with a character that was hugely influential in my life from a young age: Kerry Weaver. She was actually the first disabled character on television that I can remember seeing and again, she was a badass. She reminded me so much of my mother: no-nonsense, smart as a tack, and more than a little intimidating. And she walked with a cane! It never slowed her down as a doctor and she quickly gained the title of one of the most beloved doctors on ER. Because I watched ER for the first time out of order, I never knew why she walked with a cane I just knew that she did and it didn’t matter. That’s hugely impactful on a child and why representation in media matters.

Originally published at https://foreveramessjess.wpcomstaging.com on September 29, 2018.



Jessica Richmond Woods

My name is Jess and I'm 28 years old. I have more medical maladies than the average chick and I probably watch more television than you too.