It was the German poet Bertrold Brecht who once said that “art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. In 2022, actors with disabilities remain hugely underrepresented and Brecht’s lyrics seem more relevant than ever.
Actors and representatives of the media industry with disabilities are not known to the masses. Increasing their prominence requires a conscious shift in mindset, especially in the media, where the power to bring the unique stories of this community to light resides.
The media industry holds the power to showcase the incalculable talents of the disability community, but it is the entertainment sector that will be the key to their popularity. About 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, while only 2.8% of characters on US TV shows this year were disabled, according to a study by GLAAD.
Whichever side of the camera – or the Atlantic – one looks at, exclusion is commonplace. In the UK TV industry, people with disabilities made 6% of on-screen contributions and 8.3% of off-screen contributions from August 2020 to August 2021, according to a report by the Creative Diversity Network’s Diamond Project.
It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Such cross-sectoral under-representation establishes harmful cultural norms that perpetuate the exclusion of people with disabilities both personally and professionally.
Authentic portrayals of people with disabilities not only provide insight into the potential successes they can achieve, but also have a profound and practical impact that goes far beyond the confines of the stage.
Consumers with disabilities are calling for more representation – and in responding to these demands, the entertainment industry has the power to lead the way in acknowledging the importance of acknowledging this underrepresented community’s ability to dictate trends.
Ultimately, we must work together to end the stereotype of a powerless and marginalized community. Greater representation in the entertainment industry is a crucial first step.
It is imperative that people with disabilities are integrated into the industry, with the necessary infrastructure in place to allow them to do so smoothly.
The three Oscars won this year by CODA (or ‘Child of Deaf Adults’) should have provided all the impetus needed to launch the fight against the marginalization of people with disabilities in Hollywood and the industry at large.
As the film’s lead actor, Daniel Durant, explained in an interview for this essay, “I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand how huge the change has been for deaf actors before and after CODA. Deaf people have always struggled to access it and have always tried to impress upon medical professionals, educators and politicians how important it is to have access to sign language and to be seen. CODA has shown the world that not only do we need to have a visual language, but that our language is beautiful and everyone can enjoy it! Disabilities need to be represented on screen, and when represented authentically, it’s definitely a path to success!
There have been other important advances for this movement. Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds starred as John Krasinski’s daughter in the 2018 film A silent place. In the Marvel movie Eternals, Makkari, Lauren Ridloff’s character, communicates entirely through sign language. Both films made a concerted effort to seamlessly integrate authentic portrayal into the storyline. Unfortunately, it’s the rarity of these examples that makes them newsworthy, but there’s still more to be done in the entertainment world to recalibrate perceptions and foster an inclusive ecosystem in the industry.
For industry leaders, the case for disability inclusion goes far beyond moral appeals. The community wields a financial influence that the entertainment industry would be foolish to dismiss. According to research by Return on Disability, the disability community and their loved ones represent $13 trillion in disposable income worldwide.
The Ruderman Family Foundation estimates that Hollywood loses $125 billion a year due to a lack of authentic representation of people with disabilities. Recognizing people with disabilities is neither an act of benevolence nor even the basis of a compelling bloody story. It’s a business imperative and companies need to start taking serious long-term action.
Beyond Hollywood, much remains to be done in terms of audience accessibility in the broader arts and entertainment sector as well. Recent reports UK’s Wireless Festival (led by A$AP Rocky and Cardi B) found that attendees with disabilities felt like second-class citizens.
There was little to no thought given to accessibility, with steep hills, rough gravel, and obscured stage views making for a harrowing experience. This is by no means an isolated incident: the typical festival experience for people with disabilities is often to be thrown as far away from the action as possible.
We need change and it has to come from the upper echelons of the industry. June Sarpong, director of creative diversity at the BBC, told me there have been improvements in on-screen and off-screen representation. For example, audiences were captivated by Rose Ayling-Ellis, the first deaf Come dance strictly competitor (similar to US Dancing with the Stars)and the television series ‘Then Barbara met Alan’, written by writers with disabilities and featuring a great disabled cast, tells the story of two disability rights activists. Sarpong also acknowledged that they needed to do more as an industry.
We know change doesn’t happen overnight. The business case for inclusion has been settled. Now is the time to translate noble intentions into meaningful next steps. We say enough is enough. It’s time for the disability community to take the stage.
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