The Importance of Disability Representation in the Media: Part 2

In February of this year, Troy Kotsur made history when he became the first deaf male to be nominated for an Oscar. Troy, nominee for Best Supporting Actor at the March 27th award show, plays Frank Rossi, a deaf man, and fisherman by trade who relies on his daughter Ruby to interpret for him in his business. CODA, the acronym for Child of deaf adults, follows Ruby (who can hear), and her deaf parents as she decides she would like to pursue music in college, and her parents are faced with the possibility of losing their connection to the hearing world. Actress Marlee Matlin, who plays Jackie Rossi in the film, became the first deaf performer to be nominated for an Oscar in 1986 when she appeared in Children of a Lesser God.

“I feel like it’s wonderful to be able to share this experience with the deaf community and with the hearing community,” Troy told People magazine via ASL interpreter, “It’s so exciting and such a blessing.” He added, “I just felt so touched that so many deaf people all over the community are so excited and they’re celebrating. It’s so important for the groups of people in our ensemble who just happen to also be deaf. It tends to be just one deaf role in a film, like many of Marlee’s roles in the past, and I hope that Hollywood is beginning to be more open-minded and gives more diverse artists an opportunity to tell their stories. The awareness of ASL and deaf culture is such a positive.”

At the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards at the end of February, CODA won ‘Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture’. Just a few weeks later Troy won the Best Supporting Male award at the 37th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards. You can stream CODA on Apple TV today!

[Troy Kotsur attending the 2022 SAG Awards]

CODA is one of many pieces of media in the past several years to prominently feature performers and characters who have a disability. Millicent Simmons (A Quiet Place & A Quiet Place Part II), Zach Gottsagen (Peanut Butter Falcon), Lauren “Lolo” Spencer (Give Me Liberty), Ali Stroker (Oklahoma! and other roles in recent films/tv shows such as Only Murders In the Building), and George Robinson (Sex Education) are just a few performers who have showcased their talent on the small screen, the big screen, and even on Broadway in recent years. “Often people don’t necessarily know what to say just because they haven’t got that experience. But if they see it on screen that changes. More and more these days we learn about society in TV and media,” George said. 

Documentaries such as Crip Camp, which follows a group of individuals with disabilities in the 1970s who attend a camp and become advocates for the disability rights movement, and I Didn’t See You There, which follows Reid Davenport who experiences cerebral palsy give viewers an accurate look into the history of disability, and what it is like to have a disability in today’s society. Netflix’s Love On the Spectrum and The Reason I Jump showcases people with disabilities navigating the dating world (in the former), and non-speaking autistic people (in the latter). 

Despite the growing visibility of people with disabilities appearing in our favorite shows, movies, and plays – sees that there is still work to be done. “With one-in-five people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 2.3 percent of characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and 8 percent in family films – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves reflected in the media.” 

At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, viewers with disabilities were able to see themselves represented in several films – with support provided for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. “According to Sundance, all films were available with closed captioning on every English language feature film and short or subtitles on non-English films, which allows viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing to view films. In addition, the New Frontier Spaceship [Sundance’s online space to bring in a global audience and viewers to gather and celebrate the films] included closed captioning and text chat features,” reported.

Representation On Reality TV

Whether they are vying for a monetary prize or looking to find love, people with disabilities have appeared on reality TV shows throughout the years. Abigail Heringer appeared on the 25th season of The Bachelor and later returned for Bachelor in Paradise. During her time on the shows, Abigail explained that she is “profoundly deaf” which means she wears a cochlear implant, an electronic device that assists in providing a sense of sound for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. While she is not part of the Deaf community because she communicates vocally rather than using sign language – Abigail is dedicated to sharing her experiences as someone who is “profoundly deaf”. 

In one episode, she said: “I was really scared when I decided to come on just because I think people view the hearing community and then use the Deaf community – with a capital ‘D’ – as black and white. And I’m kind of that gray space in the middle that hasn’t had a lot of light shown on.” 

At the finale of the 23rd season of Big Brother, Britini D’Angelo revealed to her fellow houseguests that she has autism – something she had kept to herself during her time on the show. “When I was 22 months old, I was diagnosed with autism, and I have been living with autism every single day. I did not disclose that to all of you in the house because I wanted to be seen as me. I wanted you guys to get to know me for me. Britini for Britini. Not as a label. Not as a diagnosis. I am so much more than what my disability is. And I am so proud of the journey I have had to be standing on this stage right now,” she said. Ian Terry, who won the 14th season of the series opened up about being on the autism spectrum when he returned for season 22. “Being on the autism spectrum isn’t my identity. I am a smart guy, I have a great family, friends, girlfriend, and I won Big Brother!”

Podcasting About Disability

As the online world continues to grow, individuals with disabilities are finding more spaces than ever before to share their experiences and educate the listeners on what it is like to have a disability. Disability Matters (hosted by Joyce Bender), Innersight Freedom (hosted by Frank Perino Suzanne Tarazi-Ferraro), An Apple a Day (hosted by Jimmy Apple), and The Accessible Stall (hosted by Emily Ladau and Kyle Khachadurian) are just a few of the many in-depth, accessible and free podcasts available that touch on the many disability-related topics. You can find a more extensive list of current disability-related podcasts HERE

Emily, who experiences Larsen syndrome, writes on her website, “all of my activism is driven by my belief that by sharing our stories and making the disability experience accessible to the world that we will reach a world that is accessible to the disability community,” and added that she is a published author and maintains a blog. Together, she and Kyle “challenge expectations” and “ask tough questions that try to dig deep into the ‘why’ behind the issues” as stated on their website. 

Disability Representation in the Media Leads To Disability Representation In Your Community

According to the ‘Where We Are On TV’ 2021-2022 report from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), “Out of 775 series regulars on broadcast scripted series this season, 2.8 percent (22 characters) have a disability. This is a decrease from the previous year’s study, a drop of 0.7 percentage points from the record high of 3.5 percent.” The report found “this number falls far below the actual number of those with a disability in the U.S.” writes, “this representation is vitally important to how people see – or do not see – disabled individuals in our society.” Seeing people with disabilities employed, living independently, having friendships, being in romantic relationships, and achieving their goals can have a real impact when it comes to how people view disability. Representation also allows viewers with a disability to see people who may look and/or act like they do and see what they are capable of. Showcasing disability in the media can also help eliminate misconceptions people have about people who experience a disability.

Ways YOU can promote disability representation include: 

  • Consuming media that includes characters, performers, cast members, and voices with disabilities…
  • Following these characters, performers, cast members, and voices on social media…
  • Having conversations with family, friends, co-workers, and others about these TV shows, movies, plays, and podcasts. Taking these actions will promote visibility for people with disabilities in the media!

If you are interested in reading more about the importance of disability representation in the media – check out our blog post posted last spring.  

UPDATE 3/28/2022: At the 94th Academy Awards, CODA was awarded three times:

  • Best Picture
  • Actor in a Supporting Role (Troy Kotsur)
  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay) (Screenplay by Sian Heder)


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