Disability Representation Is Seriously Lacking In TV And Movies: Report

A study calls for 1 in 4 people on screen and behind the camera to be disabled.

People with disabilities are sorely lacking in representation both on screen and behind the camera, according to a new report funded by the Ford Foundation.

The “Road Map for Inclusion” report, released Wednesday, details how few disabled people are seen in movies and on TV and calls for proportional representation going forward. That means there should be 1 in 4 people “both in front of and behind the camera” with disabilities ― which would match the 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. who live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People need to see themselves. People with disabilities, like any other group ― when you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible,” said Judith Heumann, a Ford Foundation senior fellow and lead author of the report. Heumann, who had polio at a young age and uses a wheelchair, has been a disability rights activist for decades.

“The [entertainment] industry needs to say we have not been doing a good job, we need to do more,” she told HuffPost, adding that when discussing the need for diversity, industry leaders should ensure that people with disabilities are a part of that.

The new report pulls out several statistics showing the lack of disability representation in TV and cinema. For example, only 2.7 percent of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies of 2016 were depicted with a disability, per a 2017 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season, only 2.1 percent had disabilities, per a report from queer rights group GLAAD.

Heumann noted that disability representation means including people with “visible disabilities” ― like those who are blind or deaf, have muscular dystrophy or amputations ― and also people with “invisible disabilities” ― like lupus, epilepsy, chronic pain conditions and more.

The report dives into the stereotypes of disabled people that are often portrayed on screen and makes recommendations for how the TV and film industry can remedy the lack of representation.

“It’s important because there’s a lot of stigma involved with disability,” Heumann said. “We want media to be able to reflect the diversity of the disability community.”

On "Breaking Bad," the main character played by Bryan Cranston (right) has a son with cerebral palsy who is played by RJ Mitte (left), an actor with that disability.
On "Breaking Bad," the main character played by Bryan Cranston (right) has a son with cerebral palsy who is played by RJ Mitte (left), an actor with that disability.
John Shearer/Invision/AP

The report notes that when characters do have disabilities, too often they are portrayed by actors who do not. Among disabled characters in the top 10 TV shows of March 2016, only 4.8 percent were played by actors who had that disability in real life, according to a Ruderman Family Foundation report. Among streaming shows that year, the figure was slightly higher at 12.6 percent of characters with disabilities played by actors with those disabilities.

In 2016, the hit film “Me Before You” received serious backlash for having a non-disabled actor play a character who was quadriplegic. What’s more, the movie, based on a best-selling novel by Jojo Moyes, centers on the disabled character seeking an assisted suicide ― sending the message that life with a disability is not worth living.

“We are not your inspiration or objects of pity! We are disabled & proud!” one Twitter user wrote of the film, using the hashtag #mebeforeeuthanasia.

“People with disabilities, like any other group ― when you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible.”

- Judith Heumann, disability rights activist

The report points to “small changes” in disability representation that were encouraging, such as “Sesame Street” introducing a puppet named Julia with autism in 2017 and ”Breaking Bad″ having an actor with cerebral palsy play the main character’s son, who has cerebral palsy. (But Bryan Cranston, who starred in “Breaking Bad” and is not disabled, recently received backlash for playing a quadriplegic character in the movie “The Upside.”)

Common, harmful tropes in movies and TV are also detailed in the report, such as villains with disabilities ― consider that the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and several bad guys in James Bond movies have facial disfigurements. Another common stereotype is the “innocent fool” ― think Raymond in “Rain Man” or Forrest Gump.

The report lays out some steps the entertainment industry should take to increase inclusion for disabled people beyond on-screen representation: Improve the “talent pipeline” to include more people with disabilities in development and production. Ensure accessibility at industry events, as well as to TV, films and online videos through closed-captioning and video descriptions.

“What this paper is intended to do is not only expose the problems but also … to be more demanding that there be more authentic representation of disabled people across media,” Heumann said. “It’s [about] allowing disabled people, who come from many different backgrounds, their stories, their voices to be heard.”

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