Why Representation in Media Matters for People with Disabilities
Movies and shows are a major part of our culture. What we see on the screen can influence how we view society as a whole. For a long time, people with disabilities have had little representation in cinema and television, and when they did, it was often in a negative light. This has slowly changed. Representation matters because without it, marginalized groups can easily feel unheard, unseen, and simply invisible. As those with disabilities play bigger roles in front of and behind the camera, they will be given a greater voice and more opportunities to influence our society for the better.
Progress, as it so often is, has been slow. About 8% of family films in the United States starred a lead with a disability in 2018 and 2019. The Ruderman Family Foundation conducted a study in 2017 that concluded that, while 20% of Americans have a disability, the amount of onscreen characters that have disabilities totals only 2%. Of them, 95% of TV characters were found to be played by non-disabled actors or actresses. This huge discrepancy has only helped perpetuate stigmas surrounding the disabled and a false lack of diversity onscreen that inaccurately portrays the rich diversity of the real world.
There is a complex series of systems at play that have resulted in this lack of representation. People with disabilities are often unable to join training programs for aspiring actors and actresses, and struggle to find the financial means and accessibility needed to live in major cities where media jobs are located. This can be tackled through national casting searches and better economic and infrastructure policies. The impact would be widespread. Not only would it benefit those with disabilities aspiring to work in media, it would help the careers and lives of every disabled person.
Film and television productions have taken small steps to address the lack of representation. RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, played a major character on Breaking Bad who also had the same disability. Sesame Street has introduced Julia, a puppet with autism. Ali Stroker became the first Broadway actress to perform in a wheelchair in 2016’s Spring Awakening. From media for adults and children, to the world of theatre, these roles have helped create greater awareness for the need of representation. They allow people with physical disabilities to see others like them succeed, and allow children who are struggling with conditions such as autism to see a character like them on the screen. These individual casting choices have the power to impact countless lives.
There is a long way to go in fixing the huge gap between the diversity in the real world and what we seen on screen. But progress has already been made. As more barriers are removed, allowing more and more individuals with disabilities to enter the industry, we will see their increased presence as performers, writers, directors, and more. These changes are critical. More people will find better work opportunities, those with disabilities will feel a greater sense of inclusion, and all of us will have a stronger appreciation for diversity and how to ensure better opportunities for everyone. The social, economic, and cultural impact will be revolutionary.
Applebaum, Lauren. “Disability Portrayal on Screen Hits a Landmark High, Yet Reinforces Negative Stereotypes.” Respectability. https://www.respectability.org/2020/05/see-jane-study-disability-portrayals/
McGrath, Mary Kate. “How To Get Disability Representation In TV & Movies Right, According To The People Doing It.” Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/p/how-to-get-disability-representation-in-tv-movies-right-according-to-the-people-doing-it-17129242
Ruiz-Grossman, Sarah. “Disability Representation Is Seriously Lack In TV And Movies: Report.” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/disability-representation-movies-tv_n_5c9a7b85e4b07c88662cabe7?ri18n=