Disability Representation in Hollywood Still Has a Long Way to Go

RJ Mitte, Ali Stroker, and Micah D. Fowler are three actors with disabilities that are shining in film and TV (and on stage). However, diversity is undoubtedly the buzzword in this and other creative industries as there is still a long way to go in terms of creating opportunities for the disabled.

In a report entitled Hollywood, Health & Society, the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center the disabled community still lacks major representation in the media. As per a 2018 study by GLAAD, only 2.1% of scripted characters on primetime TV, for instance, have disabilities. The problem lies even deeper, since only 5% of characters with disabilities are played by actors with a disability.

Failing to Reflect the Reality of Life in the US

Approximately 26% (one in four) adults in the US have some type of disability. The highest percentage is made up of people with mobility disabilities, which can be caused by conditions like cerebral palsy. Although there are many cerebral palsy types, up to half of all people with this disorder need a wheelchair. As an audience member, ask yourself—how many characters in the last 10 films or series you watched, were in a wheelchair?

As stated in the USC report, the entertainment industry has a big impact on how our society views minority groups. Increasing diversity and portraying people with disabilities accurately can help eradicate stigma and prejudice against a significant percentage of people.

RespectAbility Suggests a Strategy to Boost Diversity

The non-profit organization, RespectAbility, has created a toolkit that is addressed to entertainment professionals. It suggests a series of strategies, which include: portraying characters with disabilities as successful members of the community, showcasing the skills and innovation of people with disabilities, using inclusive language, using entertainment to encourage parents of children with disabilities to offer their children early intervention, reaching out to expects, and ensuring that people with a wide array of disabilities have access to one’s products. Entertainment companies should also ensure their spaces are physically accessible and their websites are fully accessible. 

The Importance of Having Disabled Team Members on Board

In order for true change to be achieved, entertainment companies need to hire more disabled persons, and more people with disabilities need to be on decision-making boards. Doing so will ensure that producers, HR professionals, and creatives are able to work on truly inclusive projects. Companies should also receive training from organizations like RepectAbility. Recently, PBS Kids, relying on advice from RespectAbility, added a new character to the animated kids’ series,  Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The character was Max—a black, autistic child. T

he show presented the prejudice and systemic obstacles that can lead to children of color being less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers. RespectAblity also served as accessibility consultants for PlayStation’s video game, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which features a central character with a prosthetic. By seeking training and consultancy and building diverse teams, entertainment companies can ensure that disabled people are authentically represented in their products.

Approximately 26% (one in four) adults in the US have some type of disability but this is hardly reflected in current film and TV productions. The entertainment industry needs to represent people with disabilities with more authenticity by creating realistic characters who enjoy success although they are battling challenges. Companies also need to build more diverse teams and to rely on the knowledge of organizations such as RespectAbility, which works to encourage the entertainment industry to represent disabled people in an authentic manner.

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