The Importance of Disability Representation In The Media
Award season is upon us. The 93rd Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, April 25th and while a date for the 74th Tony Awards hasn’t been confirmed yet, plans are being made to hold the ceremony around the time of Broadway’s reopening, and the Golden Globes were held in late February. The documentary Netflix ‘Crip Camp’ is nominated for Best Documentary Film at this year’s Oscars. The documentary focuses on the emergence of the disability rights movement. Each year these award shows garner much attention and we would like to recognize them as well – particularly by taking a look at the representation of people with disabilities in movies, broadway plays, and television shows.
Throughout the Academy Awards’ 93 year history, 61 nominations have been for a performer who portrayed someone with a disability. 27 of those nominations went on to win the award. However, only two of those winners, Marlee Matlin who is deaf and Harold Russell who was an amputee, actually had a disability in the role they won for.
While many of the performers without a disability have taken their roles seriously and completed appropriate research to learn more about the disability, there are many reasons why it is important to have someone who fits the character in these roles. Performers with a disability are much more likely to portray their character in an accurate way and without any stereotypes. By having a disability themselves, these performers are able to showcase what people with that disability actually go through. It is also important for people outside the entertainment industry to see representation of people who look and act like them.
On-Stage and On-Screen, Individuals With Disabilities Showcase Their Talent
Ali Stroker, who made history in 2019 when she became the first Tony award-winning actress in a wheelchair, said while accepting her award, “this award is for every kid watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena”. Ali, who won Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role in “Oklahoma!” told reporters she hopes her win leads to theater owners making their backstage area more accessible to people who are in a wheelchair.
On the big screen, recent films such as “Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Give Me Liberty” have received critical acclaim while featuring a lead who has a disability playing the part of someone with that disability. In “Peanut Butter Falcon” Zach Gottsagen plays Zak, a character who has down syndrome. Throughout the movie Zak and Tyler (played by Shia LeBouf) travel together after Zak escapes from state-run care facility. Throughout the movie, both characters learn skills and lessons from one other. One way writers made the making of the film easier for Zach is by naming the character the same name as the actor. This makes it easier to get Zach’s attention and is one less piece of the movie he has to remember. “Give Me Liberty” features Lauren (Lolo) Spencer who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in the 2019 comedy-drama film. The film follows the driver of a medical transport vehicle who is trying to bring his elderly family to a funeral against the wishes of Tracy, a wheelchair-bound passenger.
Zach Gottsagen (Peanut Butter Falcon) and Lauren “Lolo” Spencer (Give Me Liberty)
Increase Visibility On-Stage and On-Screen
The Ruderman Family Foundation, a group whose mission statement “believes that inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and flourishing community” released a report in 2018 about representation of people with disabilities in television. Data shows that across the top 10 network TV shows for 2018 compared to 2016, 12% of all characters with disabilities were authentically cast compared to the 5% authentically cast two years prior. This data shows that progress is being made in popular television shows but there is still much room for improvement.
On streaming platforms, “Atypical” is a coming-of-age comedy that features young adults on the autism spectrum (Netflix), “This Close” features two friends who are both deaf (Amazon Prime and Sundance Now), and “Love On The Spectrum” (Netflix) is about romantic relationships between people on the autism spectrum. “The Reason I Jump” is a documentary based on the 2007 book of the same name. Autismspeaks.org describes the documentary as “a look at the lives of five autistic people’s families from four continents with an emphasis on nonverbal autism”. You can screen the documentary here, https://kinomarquee.com/venues.
‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards. The documentary, which you can find on Netflix, is about a group of teenagers who all have disabilities who came together in the early 1970’s at a summer camp near Woodstock, N.Y. who helped advance civil rights protections for themselves and others like them. Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama are credited as executive producers of the documentary. The former president said, “When we saw ‘Crip Camp’ we thought this is right in our wheelhouse. That is exactly the sorts of stories we wanted to see…It was inspiring. It was motivating. It spoke to how communities get formed. It taught all of us the effort it requires and the courage it requires to be heard and how important it is for those of us who in the past have been marginalized to sometimes get into what my dear friend John Lewis called ‘good trouble’ in order to create a better American world.”
Last month, Disney announced that as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility campaign which focuses on philanthropy, environment conservation, diversity and labor practices, and volunteerism, they would showcase two current actresses who each have a disability to read a story. You can visit MagicOfStorytelling.com to watch Kayla Cromer (“Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”) who has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), dyslexia, and dyscalculia read “Snow Day For Groot” and Shaylee Mansfield (Disney Channel’s “Bunk’D” and Disney+’s “Noelle”) who is deaf read “Ride The Waves”.
According to the ‘Inclusion in Netflix Original U.S. Scripted Series & Films’ report from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “characters with disabilities accounted for just 5.3% of leads and 4.7% of the main cast in film and series of Netflix. When all speaking characters were factored, only 2.1% had disabilities”.
Researchers have found little change in the representation of people with disabilities from 2018 to 2019. The report states, “there is room for Netflix to grow in order to depict the full range of how people experience disability”.Disabilityscoop.com reports, “In response, Netflix said it will establish a fund that will invest $100 million over the next five years in organizations that help bring underrepresented communities into television and film industries and in programs to train and hire new talent at the company”.
Conductor of the survey, Stacy Smith said, “this study sets a high bar for the wider industry and demonstrates how an internal audit is a critical first step towards inclusive change”. Netflix has announced their commitment to change and that they will be releasing a new version of their inclusion report every two years through 2026. The goal is to showcase diversity in terms of the type of disability presented, as well as the gender and race of the person with a disability.
Why Ableist-Minded Stereotypes Are Harmful
Despite receiving two Golden Globe nominations – “Music” which features Maddie Zeigler (who does not have a disability) playing a teenage girl with autism has received backlash from disability groups and their advocates, particularly directed toward Sia who wrote, directed and produced the film. Scenes from the film showcase caregivers using restraint on the character with autism. Depictions of restraint have groups such as Disability Rights CA explaining why restraint is not effective and an article on propubica.org states, “nationally, more than 100,000 students were subject to restraint and seclusion practices in 2017-2018 (the most recent year data was collected)”. Themighty.com names strategies such as “giving people space, removing extra sensory stimuli, allowing for stimming and using safe tools for regulation, like a weighted blanket or watching a soothing video, and identifying triggers ahead of time” as more effective and appropriate ways to help someone with autism who has been triggered.
Showcasing harmful and ableist-minded stereotypes about people with disabilities in the media helps promote more ableism.. According to Wikipedia, “ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are percieved to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and inferior to those who are non-disabled. On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills or character orientations”.
According to a 2018 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults in the United States and seven million students in school have some type of disability. These statistics further confirm that accurate and visible representation in the media for those with a disability is important – whether it is to see those with the same disability as oneself achieving goals, seeing what your child can achieve, or learning more about what life is like for someone who faces challenges in their life.