In the past few years, Hollywood has been confronted by the MeToo movement, OscarsSoWhite, Black Lives Matter and, presently, members of the trans community calling out what they see as transphobic depictions of themselves in films, on television and in the media.
But there is another group traditionally under-represented in movies and TV whose population intersects at points with all those others: disabled people.
A new survey conducted by the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at the UCLA Psychology Department sought to examine the needs and opinions of disabled individuals in terms of media representation. The center said it “worked with the advocacy nonprofit organization RespectAbility after data analysis to ensure greater impact for this study.”
Survey data was collected on a nationally reflective sample of over 1,000 U.S. adults between the ages of 18-54. Of that sample, a subset of 268 people reported having a disability. They were asked three questions:
1.) “Do you feel as though the facets of your identity that matter most to you are accurately represented in the TV and media that you consume on a regular basis?”
2.) “Do you feel as though accurate representation of your identity on TV and in the media has increased, decreased, or stayed the same over the past 1-2 years?”
3.) “Which do you value more: the amount (quantity) of TV content that represents your identity or the manner in which (quality) TV content represents your identity?”
Overall, just over 50% of those surveyed felt that the representation of their identity has stayed the same onscreen over the past 1-2 years, with women and other-gendered participants seeing the least amount of progress.
That’s a problem given that those same two segments of the disabled community most feel that the quality of their representation on screen falls short. Only 42% of women surveyed feel as if the facts of their identity that matter to them most are well-represented on screen. Among other-gendered people it was 57%. Among men, the number rose to 75%.
Men and woman had differing views on question 3, as well. According to the survey, “68% of women who have one or more disabilities reported wanting better quality representation while 65% of men reported wanting more quantity representation.”
The answers to these questions are important not just in terms of showing respect for the disabled community and making good art, they matter to the bottom line, as well, according to the study’s authors.
They report that one-in-five people in the U.S. has a disability. That’s roughly 60 million Americans. Citing Nielsen Research, they say “consumers with disabilities represent a $1 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends and associates, that total expands to more than $1 trillion.” And there’s plenty of room for growth.
According to GLAAD, the report says, “just 3.5% of characters in broadcast scripted series had disabilities in the 2020-2021 season. Furthermore, actors without disabilities play the majority of all characters with disabilities on-screen.” And there’s a long history of actors without disabilities actors winning Oscars for portraying disabled characters.
One 19-year-old female survey participant put it this way: “In my opinion, TV/Media could do a MUCH better job at representing neurodivergence, mental illness, and disability WITHOUT over exaggerating and stereotyping the way we behave or function. I also believe that [if] you truly want to represent people from a marginalized group you need to hire someone FROM that specific group. Not just pay some actor that isn’t affected by these things to play pretend with our reality.” It’s a lament that echoes similar observations from communities of color and the LGBTQ+ communities.
The study’s authors praise projects such as CODA, Peanut Butter Falcon, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Crazy Rich Asians and Coco. But they say that most of the on-screen representations that do exist are misleading, especially in terms of intersectionalism.
“Almost all portrayals of people with disabilities in the media are white, but disability impacts all,” the report reads. “Disabled people come from all communities – including Black, AAPI, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented communities.”
And finally, as many in Hollywood are fond of saying, the report emphasizes that it all starts with a good story.
“It is not only important to increase the representation but also to ensure that the narrative is good,” note RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum, Tatiana Lee, Vanni Le and Lesley Hennen in the report. “It’s not enough to just be included – we have to be included in an authentic way, telling diverse, complex stories of the disability experience, and avoid falling into the trap of inspiration porn, which assumes that anyone with a disability must have it so much worse, and uses people with disabilities to make non-disabled people feel good about themselves.”
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