Happy new year!
Let’s start the new year with a little activity. I ask you to think about a movie or TV show you’ve seen that featured a character with a disability. Just choose the first that comes to mind. Once selected, consider whether the disabled character will be played by a disabled actor. If so, congratulations! You found a rare example where a disabled character is both present and genuinely represented by a disabled actor.
It would be no surprise if there were no disabled actors in television or film that came to mind. More than 95 percent of disabled characters on television are played by actors without disabilities. This should be as scary to us as blackface and white actors, but unfortunately, we continue to accept that this is the norm for the entertainment we consume. In fact, we often praise actors who take on the “challenge” of playing disabled characters.
Consider this: Almost one in four people in the United States has a disability, yet a 2021 study revealed that 3.1 percent of characters in TV and film have a disability. The lack of disability in the cast and crew may be the reason why on-screen representation is so low; it certainly contributes to the lack of authenticity we see in the characters being portrayed.
The impact of this lack of representation on persons with disabilities is not obvious. For some of us, the media may be our first or only exposure to certain disabilities, and it can give us more understanding and comfort when we encounter them in real life. Without this access, or if representations are negative, we are more likely to fear or discriminate against people with disabilities around us.
When people with disabilities don’t see positive, relevant 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 nothing to do with real people’s experiences with disabilities.
Fortunately, people are starting to pay attention to this deficit. The Nielsen company (best known for its ratings) has asked its subsidiary Gracenote to start tracking representations of disabilities on the small screen, including streaming services. According to reports, as business guru Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Perhaps by finally collecting data on representation of disabilities, we’ll finally try to improve it.
Gracenote has modeled better representations in its project method. The new tracking system it will use was designed by RespectAbility, a disability-led nonprofit. Among the services RespectAbility offers is an entertainment media consulting team that helps television studios and filmmakers become more active in including and authentically reproducing the lives of people with disabilities.
As viewers, we should demand this performance. Look for TV and movies that have people with disabilities as cast and crew. Together we can push the entertainment industry to do better.
Tara Kiene is the President/CEO of Community Connections Inc.