A new report finds that while about 20% of Americans have a disability, only 1.7% of all the characters portrayed on TV last season were visibly disabled. The report, from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, also found that “an astonishing 95% of characters with disabilities on TV are played by non-disabled actors.” This, the report concludes, “demonstrates the drastic need for a more accurate representation of people with disabilities on screen in terms of authentic casting and portrayals.”
“The representation of actors with disabilities on television remains woefully inadequate,” said Foundation president Jay Ruderman. “Despite incremental progress in the right direction by a few networks and studios, actors with disabilities are the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood.”
The report (read it here) found that 20th Century Fox and CBS were the leaders in hiring and auditioning actors with disabilities. It found that CBS leads in employment with 11 series and pilots having hired performers with disabilities across the network, while 61% of Fox’s dramas (14 out of 23) and 69% of its comedies (nine of 13) auditioned performers with disabilities for the past and current TV seasons.
“So many times when producers or casting directors hear the word ‘disability’ they think ‘inability,’ and we need to change this preconception,” said Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, co-author of the report and a regular on NCIS: New Orleans (right), one of the few primetime series performers with a disability. “What we want is the chance to audition. I wouldn’t have my job if I wasn’t the right fit.” Mitchell has been paralyzed from the waist down since a motorcycle accident in 2001.
ABC had five shows that hired disabled performers during the past year, NBC had three, and Fox had one. On cable, HBO had three shows that hired disabled actors; Showtime and FX had two; and AMC, TBS, Cinemax, Comedy Central, Disney XD, Freeform, Nickelodeon, Pop, Starz, Syfy and TBS each had one. Among the streaming services, Hulu had three shows that hired disabled actors; Netflix and Amazon each had two.
Networks whose shows didn’t hire any disabled performers – at least, as the report notes, “none with open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones” – include the CW, Disney Channel, Bravo, History, TNT, Spike, TV Land, USA Drama, CMT, Audience Network, VH1, Crackle, Epix and CBS Internet.
“The imperative for diversity is already widespread in many corners of the industry and we assert that disability is of course a part of diversity,” said the report, which was co-authored by Tari Hartman Squire and Kristina Kopić. “Although we have seen a move in the right direction – more scripted series are open to auditioning and casting talent with disabilities, more performers with disabilities are having positive experiences – we still must acknowledge that we are far from parity with the disability community. The number of working actors with disabilities is far below the 20% of people with disabilities in the population.”
“Today it would be inconceivable for 95% of Black characters to be played by white actors in blackface,” the report states. “Indeed blackface itself as a practice is almost, though not entirely, inconceivable these days. Although we have to state that this comparison between ‘disabled mimicry’ or ‘cripping up’ and ‘blackface’ is not entirely analogous, and it is important to recognize the difference. For example, according to Anita Cameron, ADAPT Activist and Director of Minority Outreach for the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, ‘Disabled mimicry is not at all the same as blackface, which was a sinister invention and cinematic aggression specifically designed as a genre for the sole purpose to demean black people and make us look foolish with hideous make-up, and exaggerated stereotypes of buffoonery – stereotypes on steroids.’ Filmmaker and disability rights activist Dominick Evans who coined the phrase ‘disabled mimicry’ adds, ‘By contrast, disabled mimicry is based on lowered expectations that performers with disabilities lack the talent to portray a specific role and/or talent with disabilities don’t exist, or can’t be found.’
“While we acknowledge that blackface has a deeply racialized history and origin driven by blatant racism, the argument we made in last year’s White Paper maintains that there are some nuanced parallels when it comes to the effect of blackface, as compared to the effect of disabled mimicry: 1) the erasure of a group of people, and 2) public acceptance of that erasure.
“Blackface is still pervasive within living memory. For example, as recently as 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement, Laurence Olivier received an Oscar nomination for playing Othello in blackface. Today we recognize that casting black actors to play black characters is a given. There are still many obstacles for black actors, but convincing people that the role of a black character shouldn’t go to a White actor in makeup isn’t one of them anymore. However that is one of the obstacles which the disability community still faces in Hollywood – the belief that disability is something to be acted. As Dominick Evans notes, ‘Disability is presented as one of the ‘greatest’ challenges a non-disabled actor can take on, often one they take in hopes of winning the highest honors for their craft.’
“The argument we are making is that non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’ or engaging in disabled mimicry is depriving one group of people –in this case America’s largest minority group at 20% of the population –the right to self-representation. It furthermore perpetuates the myth that actors with disabilities are not even good enough to portray themselves.”
And the report found that TV “isn’t the only culprit. When we turn to movies, just shy of half of all the Oscars for Best Actor since 1988 have gone to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. That is a rather stunning level of erasure. Audiences clearly are welcoming of stories about people with disabilities, yet there is little backlash over the fact that the disabilities on screen are make-believe. There are no actual people with disabilities – at least no open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones –receiving the awards and honor; not since 1987 when Marlee Matlin, a deaf performer, won an Oscar for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God.”
The authors of the report insists that they are “not absolutists” when it comes to the representation of disabled characters and the actors who play them. “We often have arguments levied our way claiming that not every single character with a disability could possibly be played by an actor with a disability. Some argue that there are certain types of disabilities just too rare to find actors for. To these claims we say: we are not absolutists. Our claim is not that every character with a disability must be portrayed by an actor with a disability. Instead, we advocate for more equity and frequency for performers with disabilities to be considered for any role, whether or not the script indicates disability.
“Our bottom line is that we must shift those social attitudes and offer talent with disabilities the same opportunities at growth and development as we do to talent without disabilities. It is okay for a non-disabled actor to portray a character with a disability if that person truly is the best fit for the role. But the reverse must hold as well. Production teams must be willing to audition actors with disabilities for a wide variety of roles whether or not disability is specified in the script.”