Happy new year!
Start the year with small activities. Think about the movies and TV shows you’ve seen that feature characters with disabilities. Just pick the first one that comes to mind. Once selected, consider whether the disabled character was played by an actor with a disability. If so, congratulations! I found one of the rare instances where disabled characters exist and are actually represented by disabled actors.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the television and movies that came to mind didn’t feature disabled actors. Over 95% of his disabled characters on television are played by non-disabled actors. This is as terrifying as blackface white actors, but unfortunately we have continued to accept this as the norm for the entertainment we consume. I often praise actors who work on .
please think about it. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the United States have a disability, but a 2021 study showed that 3.1% of her TV and film characters have a disability. The lack of a handicapped cast and crew is likely responsible for such little on-screen representation. It certainly leads to the lack of authenticity seen in the characters portrayed.
This lack of representation affects people with disabilities in ways that are not immediately apparent. For some of us, the media may be our first or only exposure to certain obstacles, giving us more understanding and comfort when we encounter them in real life. Hmm. Without that opportunity for exposure, or if the expression is negative, we are more likely to fear or discriminate against people with disabilities around us.
Self-esteem and mental health can also be affected when people with disabilities do not see positive and relevant representations from people like themselves. The disabled characters we see are often caricatures and stereotypes that have nothing to do with the experiences of real people with disabilities.
Fortunately, people are starting to pay attention to this deficit. Nielsen’s company (famous for its TV ratings) has charged its subsidiary Gracenote to start tracking disability representations on small screens, including streaming services. Business guru Peter Drucker was quoted as saying, “What is measured is managed.” Perhaps collecting data on the disability representation will eventually help us improve it.
Gracenote has already modeled a better representation in its approach to the project. The new tracking system used was designed by RespectAbility, a disability-led non-profit organization. Among the services RespectAbility provides is an entertainment media consulting team that helps television studios and filmmakers to embrace people with disabilities and truly represent their lives.
As an audience, we should demand this representation. Look for TV and movies that include people with disabilities in casts and crews. Together, we can put pressure on the entertainment industry to do a better job.
Tara Kiene is President and CEO of Community Connections Inc.