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Disability is a fact of life for 49 million Americans. For television, apparently, it was just another trend.

A decade ago, TV series welcomed actors with handicaps in roles that sometimes highlighted their condition or, better yet, presented them as simply part of the gang.Now, say disabled performers and observers, television's portrait of American life is strangely devoid of those with physical difficulties - and the industry has become less willing to hire the handicapped.

"There was an abundance of roles in the '80s, there was an awareness," says Vivian Campos of the Media Access Office, a liaison between Hollywood and disabled performers.

In the 1990s, such parts have become scarce and so has attention to the issue, says Campos.

David McSwain, a brawny, blond actor, knows how professionally costly a handicap can be: He was working steadily until a 1991 motorcycle accident forced the amputation of his lower right leg.

He recovered within a year, but his career didn't.

"If I was an able-bodied actor with the credits I have now, I would probably be going on auditions two to three times a week," said McSwain.

"With the situation as it is, I'm lucky to get an audition every two to three weeks," he said.

Few current TV series make room for the handicapped. The casting of wheelchair-user actress Nancy Becker Kennedy in the recent sitcom "The Louie Show" is a rarity, not the rule.

When a series depicts a handicapped character, it often fakes the disability - feisty, crippled Dr. Kerry Weaver in "ER" is played by non-disabled actress Laura Innes.

But was it really so good in the old days? Yes, to an extent.

When police detective Cagney (Sharon Gless) fell in love with a handicapped man on the 1980s series "Cagney & Lacey," actor and double-amputee James Stacy played the part.

An actress with cerebral palsy, Geri Jewell, was on "The Facts of Life." Chris Templeton, with a pronounced post-polio limp, was featured on "The Young and the Restless."

And actors with a range of disabilities were routinely shown on "Highway to Heaven," "Dallas" and "Knots Landing."

Often the roles were guest shots or supporting parts, but they seemed to indicate momentum for change.

"I really thought by the time the '90s came, the mainstreaming of performers with disabilities would be the main thrust." said Casey Stengel, an actor and paraplegic.

The optimum scenario would be one in which a character's disability was simply a detail, not a dramatic device, and in which the hiring of disabled performers was routine.

But television has fallen short.

While indifference fuels the problem, it is rooted in changing economics, special effects advancements and Hollywood's limited attention span.

Stengel, committee chairman for the union-affiliated Performers with Disabilities, was drawn to Hollywood in the 1980s because of the open climate he perceived.

The opportunities he found then, including a role on "General Hospital," have dissolved.

"People who cast the disabled say `I did it, I did my part.' It was the thing to do for a while," said Stengel.

Tougher economic times are a key factor, say Campos and others: Producers and networks are less willing to take time for social consciousness in a more competitive environment.

"The perception is it's just more trouble and more time and therefore more money," said "Cagney and Lacey" producer Barney Rosenzweig. "It isn't much of any of those things."

Diane English, who produced "The Louie Show," found Becker's hiring carried only advantages.

"She would make suggestions and keep us honest about some comment the character would make," English said.

Technology offers producers another excuse to use a non-handicapped actor. With today's special effects, non-disabled Gary Sinise can convincingly play a legless Vietnam veteran in "Forrest Gump."

Campos and others find the practice too readily accepted and too little questioned.

"I want it to get as offensive to society to put an able-bodied person in a wheelchair as to put a Caucasian person in blackface," Campos said.

There is more at issue than one industry and one category of workers.

The disabled, who at 49 million represent roughly one in five Americans, face an equally bleak employment picture outside Hollywood, said Paul Hearne, president of the Dole Foundation created by former Sen. Bob Dole to assist handicapped workers.

"There is no single group, including young blacks, that has a higher exclusionary rate than persons with disabilities," said Hearne.

In this environment, he said, television's treatment of the handicapped takes on increased importance - and steps are being taken to awaken Hollywood.

Performers With Disabilities is compiling a national directory featuring disabled actors and plans informational sessions with writers and directors.

The Media Access Office holds sessions to help educate the industry, trains and refers actors, is working to count the number of disabled performers, and bestows annual awards on progressive producers.

"I don't say that you have to hire a person with a disability," said Campos. "But you darn well better give us the opportunity."