Happy New Year!
Let’s start the year with a little activity. I invite you to think of a movie or television program you have seen that features a character with a disability. Just pick the first one that comes to mind. Once you have selected, consider whether that disabled character was played by a disabled actor. If so, congratulations! You found one of the rare instances where a disabled character both exists and is authentically represented by a disabled actor.
If the TV or film that came to mind did not feature a disabled actor, it should not come as a surprise. More than 95% of disabled characters on TV are played by nondisabled actors. This should be as horrifying to us as a white actor in blackface, but unfortunately, we have continued to accept this as the norm for the entertainment we consume. In fact, we frequently give accolades to actors who take on the “challenge” of playing a disabled character.
Consider this: almost 1 in 4 people in the United States has a disability, yet a 2021 study showed that 3.1% of characters in TV and film have disabilities. The lack of cast and crew with disabilities may be the cause of such low representation on the screen; it certainly results in the lack of authenticity we see in the characters who do get portrayed.
This lack of representation impacts people with disabilities in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. For some of us, media might be our first or only exposure to certain disabilities and give us more understanding and comfort when we encounter those disabilities in real life. Without the opportunity for that exposure, or if the representations are negative, we are more likely to fear or discriminate against people with disabilities around us.
When people with disabilities do not see positive, relatable representations of people like them, it can also affect their self-esteem and mental health. The disabled characters we do see are often caricatures and stereotypes that have no relationship to the experience of disability real people have.
Fortunately, people are starting to pay attention to this deficit. The Nielsen company (of TV ratings fame) has charged its subsidiary Gracenote to begin tracking disability representation on the small screen, including streaming services. As business guru Peter Drucker reportedly said, “what gets measured, gets managed.” Perhaps by finally collecting the data on disability representation, we will finally manage to improve it.
Gracenote is already modeling better representation in its approach to the project. The new tracking system it will be using was designed by the disability-led nonprofit organization RespectAbility. Among the services RespectAbility offers is an Entertainment Media Consulting Team that can help television studios and filmmakers be more proactive in their inclusion of people with disabilities and authentic representations of disabled life.
As audiences, we should demand this representation. Seek out TV and films that include people with disabilities as cast and crew. Together, we can pressure the entertainment industry to do better.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.