Authentic Portrayal Of Characters With Disabilities Sees Significant Progress – Study

Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman in the second season of "This Close" Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

In a new study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, it was revealed that 22% of all characters with disabilities on network television and 20% of such characters on streaming services are portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability. This is good news as it shows a significant boost from the Ruderman Family Foundation’s study from 2016 where 5% of characters on TV were cast authentically. Even though the needle has moved, the topic of disability remains largely absent from Hollywood’s diversity conversation.

Ruderman Family Foundation

The Foundation’s new white paper “Authentic Representation in Television 2018” picks up from the organization’s 2016 paper on employment of actors with disabilities on TV. The 2016 study was very eye-opening in that it revealed that despite people with disabilities representing nearly 20% of the U.S. population, 95% of characters with disabilities on television were played by able-bodied actors.

The 2018 study put a larger sample size under the microscope than the 206 study. The study examined all TV shows aired in 2018, including 284 shows across 37 networks and four streaming platforms. According to the white paper, 55% of network television shows and 42% of shows on streaming services had characters with disabilities. More than half of these characters had mental disabilities, a third had physical disabilities and the rest had cognitive disabilities. Breaking it down: 71% of all authentically represented characters portrayed physical disabilities, 16% depicted mental disabilities and 13% represented intellectual disabilities.

Ryan O'Connell, Augustus Prew and Punam Patel in 'Special'
Ryan O’Connell, Augustus Prew and Punam Patel in Netflix’s “Special” Netflix

CBS made it to the head of the class when it came to authentic casting, with 14 authentic casts. It shows that the network is walking the walk as they became the first entertainment company to sign the Ruderman Family Foundation’s pledge to commit to auditioning actors with disabilities. The CBS series NCIS: New Orleans received the Foundation’s Seal of Authentic Representation, for its casting of Daryl “Chill” Mitchell in the role of agent Patton Plame.

NBC followed CBS with eight authentic casts while Sundance Now had five. On the streaming side, Netflix with eight characters who were authentically represented, followed by Amazon Prime with three authentic characters.

Steve Way and Ramy Youssef in Hulu’s “Ramy” Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

“While we are encouraged with the entertainment industry’s progress on authentic casting of actors with disabilities from 2016 to 2018, we believe our study provides Hollywood with unprecedented empirical evidence that now is the time to offer more unique narratives and diverse characters in order to foster a more inclusive landscape,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “At a time when entertainment is advocating for inclusion, it is crucial that we continue to advance the rights of people with disabilities and create more opportunities for them in television and film.”

‘Speechless’ Cast ABC

The study continues the Foundation’s ongoing efforts to bring awareness of the disabled community in Hollywood and to include them in the discourse of diversity. At the end of 2019, actors Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo, Glenn Close, Eva Longoria were among many actors, producers, writers and directors that signed the Foundation’s recent open letter which calls on Hollywood executives to create more opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Foundation was honored with the Media Access Awards last November with the SAG-AFTRA Disability Awareness Award. Last year, Foundation has awarded TV series Speechless, NCIS: New Orleans, Special, The OA, Ramy and This Close with its Seal of Authentic Representation for accurate depictions of people with disabilities. For the first time, it awarded the Seal to two feature films including Give Me Liberty and The Peanut Butter Falcon.

Read the full  “Authentic Representation in Television 2018” study here.

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