There's a Huge Problem in How Television Represents People With Disabilities, Study Says


Nearly 20% of people in the United States live with some sort of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But you wouldn't know it by looking at television. 

According to a new report released by the the Ruderman Family Foundation, actors without a disability play 95% of disabled characters on TV. The report cites a GLAAD study that shows that, despite 20% of the US living with a disability, only 0.9% of television characters do. 

"[This lack of self-representation] points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice," the report reads. 

"This is a lack of self-representation that would be absolutely unacceptable in any other marginalized group of people." 

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The study examined the top 10 TV shows and the top 21 shows on streaming outlets like Netflix and found only four actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities: Daryl Mitchell as Patton Plame on NCIS: New Orleans, Natasha Lyonne as Nicky Nichols on Orange Is the New Black, Will Arnett as Chip on Flaked and Mark Povinelli as The Cat on Mad Dogs. The report highlighted that both Nichols and Arnett have nonvisible disabilities — Arnett is a recovering alcoholic while Lyonne has spoken about her drug addiction — and may not self-identify as disabled, but their disability fits within the parameters of the study. 

"We are not making the argument that every single television character with a disability need be played by an actor with that disability," the researchers wrote in the report. "Instead we believe that it is absolutely unacceptable to have 95% of characters with disabilities played by actors without disabilities."

"It is necessary to create an environment where actors with disabilities have access to play characters with disabilities," they added.

Actors living with disabilities also participated in the report by responding to surveys about how often they are asked to audition for a role or land work.  

Ruderman Family Foundation

An overwhelming number of respondents indicated they audition less than once a year and work less than once a year.

Ruderman Family Foundation

The authors of the report also offered suggestions on how to fix the problem. 

Much like reports that have dealt with Hollywood's overwhelming whiteness problem, the researchers suggested ameliorating the problem by educating "gatekeepers" who are in charge of hiring and casting. The report also pointed to specific instances of computer-generated imagery being used to make able-bodied actors seem disabled and called for an end to the practice. 

They also asked entertainment journalists to call out television shows and films that erase actors with disabilities, for disabilities to be used as more than a plot device and to tell stories that focus on people's humanity rather than solely on their disabilities.

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