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Road Map for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Media

The Challenge

One in four Americans live with disabilities, yet on TV and in movies the fraction of disabled people represented is far smaller. When characters with disabilities are portrayed it is often by actors who are not disabled and the portrayals are rife with insidious misconceptions that do not reflect the reality of the lives of disabled people--lives like any other marked by joy and grief, achievement and disappointment. Behind the scenes, the situation is no better; disabled people are underrepresented as directors, producers, writer, techs and more. Though the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act purports to defend against such discrimination, it persists. How can we change that? What measures can be pursued to ensure that disabled people are proportionally represented in media and, moreover, represented in a way that respects their humanity, celebrates their individuality, and mirrors the breadth of the human experience?

What’s in the Report

Judith E. Heumann, a leader in disability rights and a Ford Foundation fellow, examines how disabled Americans have been othered or excluded from representation in film and on television, buttressing her investigation with hard data that demonstrate their on- and off- screen marginalization. Unlike people of color, women, and those who identify as LBGTQI, disabled people remain typically overlooked in the industry or depicted on screen as pitiable, nefarious, or societal drains--depictions at once insulting, false and harmful. Their toxicity seeps into mainstream society and shapes mainstream views on people with disabilities.

When the media pivots and takes an active part in celebrating disabled people, as it did in the UK in conjunction with the 2012 Paralympics, public attitude pivots as well for the better. The report points out signs of change in the U.S.; Breaking Bad, Speechless and Switched at Birth all present positive representations of disabled people. Yet films like Million Dollar Baby and Me Before You are still being made, presenting non-disabled actors playing disabled characters who prefer to die rather than live as they are. Heumann defines the four stereotypical portrayals of disability (the supercrip, the villain, the victim, the innocent fool) and provides several examples of each from pop culture. She extrapolates lessons from the experiences of the Center for Asian American Media and GLAAD on how to ensure more, and more positive, inclusion of disabled people in the media, and also looks overseas at the UK for examples of how disabled people can be better integrated on TV, behind its scenes, and what the benefit of such greater integration accrues where it has been implemented, at the BBC and Channel 4.

Heumann urges a host of measures to help shift the landscape. Among her recommendations is the establishment of an ecosystem that supports a training pipeline for disabled people to get both in front of and behind the camera, the expansion of institutional diversity statements to explicitly reference disable people, and that organizations undertake internal audits to ensure that there is both adequate physical access to their premises, and that disabled people are also duly represented among staff and management. She furthermore makes the case for the creation of a hub where members and advocates of the disability community can come together and change the narrative around disability so that disabled people are no longer neglected or omitted from the stories the media tells. “Regardless of our age, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation,” Heumann says, “whether we were born with or acquired our disabilities, and whether or not our disabilities are apparent or not, I and other disabled people ought finally to be able to point to the presenters and characters on our televisions and in our films and say, “That person’s like me—they understand my life, joys, sorrows, and complexities.”