When Hollywood discusses diversity, one community is often left out of the conversation: people with disabilities. Even in its most recent iterations, prompted by #OscarsSoWhite, differently abled people in the industry seem unable to find a seat at the table.
A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation revealed that, despite those with disabilities representing nearly 20% of the country's population, about 95% of characters with disabilities on television are played by able-bodied actors.
"The protest and ensuing media frenzy ignited by the 'Oscars So White' campaign has shaped an ideology around diversity in entertainment," actor Danny Woodburn, a coauthor of the report, said in a statement. "This off-balanced idea of diversity has led to policy and even proposed legislation that has excluded people with disabilities. The Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors With Disabilities in Television is our attempt to bring perspective to inclusion, to reinforce access and an understanding of authenticity as an expression of what true diversity means and to finally let the least represented group in this medium be heard."
Woodburn ("Jingle All the Way," "Seinfeld" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"), who as a little person counts himself as a person with a disability, cowrote the report with Kristina Kopić, an advocacy specialist with the Ruderman Foundation, an internationally recognized organization that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities.
Surveying hundreds of actors with visible and non-visible disabilities, they found that a plurality of actors with disabilities worked less than once a year and were repeatedly subjected to negative stigma and preconceived biases by casting agents and producers. The report also examined how often actors with disabilities appeared on the top 10 television shows of the 2015-16 season. The study looked at 31 shows, including streaming platforms, and found that only four actors with disabilities were cast, or less than 2% of all actors on screen.
Additionally, the study cites GLAAD's "Where Are We on TV" report that noted that characters with disabilities on broadcast programming dropped from 1.4% in 2014-15 to 0.9% the following season. When taking into account that 95% of these few roles are filled by able-bodied actors, the true extent of the misrepresentation is evident, the report stated.
"Because of the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities, we very rarely see people with real disabilities on screen," said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. "This blatant discrimination against people with disabilities not only is fundamentally unfair ... it also reinforces stigmas against people with disabilities. By systematically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, Hollywood is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country."
Ruderman and Woodburn cowrote a July 11 op-ed for The Times titled, "Why Are We OK With Disability Drag in Hollywood?," in which they outlined how the industry could rectify this situation.
"We don't believe that every single character with a disability needs to be played by an actor with a disability," they wrote. "But if we're going to employ Computer Graphics and makeup to create the illusion of disability, then we should also be willing to do the reverse."
They added: "Inequality of self-representation matters on a real, human level. We are not talking about some obscure pursuit; we're talking about America's No. 1 leisure activity. Studies and polls have shown repeatedly that positive exposure to gay TV characters sways audiences toward greater acceptance and even toward greater support for same-sex marriage. Exposure to people with disabilities would have an equally beneficial effect."
The Ruderman Foundation intends to bring the major studio heads together this fall in Los Angeles to discuss the report's findings and possible corrective measures.
See the full report here.
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