It is well understood that film and television are a part of our cultural experience. In fact more than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court observed how film impacts “public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression.” and that they “are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” and their “importance as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.” The representation of disability within film and television should be a part of that cultural exchange.
In the last couple of years we have seen a marked increase in the visibility of disability in the media. Examples include very visible national advertisements that include individuals with disabilities – Swiffer, with a one-armed dad; a blind mom and her use of Facebook, a lesbian couple learning to sign to adopt a child from Wells Fargo, an aunt who is a wheelchair user in a Honey Maid commercial, and the presence of models with Down Syndrome in several Target print ads just to name a few. And of course, one cannot talk about increased visibility and not mention Nyle DiMarco’s win in Dancing with the Stars, the success on Broadway of Spring Awakening with its diverse cast, and of course the television series, Speechless.
What is also visible is where disability is perhaps not treated as well. These include mainstream media commenting critically on the prevalence of disability in Oscar wins. As was noted in one article, “Since Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar playing “Rain Man,” a majority of Best Actor Oscars were taken home by men playing the sick or handicapped.” Also, the response to disability protests for films such as “Me Before You” which, arguably only offer dangerous stereotypes that it is better for an individual with a disability to die (usually beautifully and/or tragically) rather than live with the impairment. For the first time, media outside the disability community blogosphere was examining this trend and finding fault.
According to the U.S. Census, there are 56 million people with disabilities; that breaks down to approximately one in five Americans. GLAAD’s 2015-16 study, “Where We Are On TV”, highlights that fact that only eight characters had a disability this season, representing 0.9% of all characters. What is perhaps more distressing is that the percentage and number of series regulars with disabilities has actually decreased. This is not the direction to go.
In response to criticisms within the industry we are seeing strong commitments and investments in diversity; we are seeing the establishment of myriad programs, contests, and fellowships that aim to support diverse filmmakers and actors. Unfortunately, it is rare that “diversity” is inclusive of disability. As such, I am writing to urge the open, named recognition of “disability” within the larger umbrella of diversity, for the recognition of the significant exclusion of disability from many programs and projects focused on addressing the broader issue, and for concrete actions to address this ongoing invisibility of disability. Without direct investment and recognition of disability with inclusion and strong internal mandates there will never be any development of future disabled film and television talents, both in front of and behind the camera. Therefore, I would like to propose 6 Media and Disability recommendations. They aren’t perfect, and they doesn’t cover everything, but it is a place to start.
Six Media and Disability/Diversity Recommendations*
1. SPECIFIC INCLUSION. Include “disability” as a named minority status when promoting any diversity initiatives.
Often diversity programs, internships, contests etc. focus on gender or race without recognizing that disability is also a minority status/identity. This exclusion sends a message, “Disability need not apply.” Considering that disability is a fact of life for more than 20% of the American population, it is crucial that disability is explicitly included. In addition, many of these projects do not recognize the intersectionality of disability and that it often exists side-by-side with other statuses.
2. DATA COLLECTION. Ensure “disability” is included in any surveys or demographic questions for all projects, programs, memberships and other processes.
Without asking, it is impossible to get any idea of the representation of this population. As an example, the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study titled “Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity.” The in-depth scrutiny included 109 films released by major studios in 2014 and 305 scripted series that aired on television and streaming services from September 2014 to August 2015. Disability was not included in their examination. On a positive note, Annenberg’s upcoming studies will include disability as a part of the analysis. However, the Screen Actors Guild does include disability as part of voluntary data collection and is a key source of information about this population in the entertainment industry. It is unclear how many other associations, fellowships, workshops, and programs actually have members and participants with disabilities because the question isn’t asked. This kind of demographic information, even when only provided voluntarily and even when only viewed in the aggregate, is invaluable to gaining an understanding of who and where these industry professionals are.
3. EXPLORE NEW MEANS OF OUTREACH. Looking for people with disabilities but aren’t finding any? You may be looking in the wrong/same places.
When seeking individuals to fit roles in front of or behind the camera, to participate in programs or internships, or to support your media diversity/disability activities, choose different conferences, consider a different sourcing agency, pick a different place to advertise. Consider creating a fellowship for filmmakers from underrepresented communities, or setting up an internship program with a minority-serving institution, particularly those with film programs. Build partnerships. Actively reach out to professional, academic, or advocacy organizations related to disability and/or media. There are plenty of talented people with disabilities who can bring value to your productions.
On a related note, when incorporating characters with disabilities or other chronic conditions, reach out to actual people with disabilities. Find consultants who can help you ensure you are “getting it right.” Hire writers and/or directors with disabilities. There are many aspects of culture, technology, relationships, and how people with disabilities relate to society. Outreach to these communities helps you to add, not just accuracy, but depth to your projects (and not just on the subject of disability).
4. EXPANDED OPPORTUNITY. Consider instituting a “Rooney Rule” for casting your projects (and make sure your location is accessible).
In football, “The Rooney Rule” requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head coaching position. It does not guarantee hiring and is not an affirmative action plan. However, recognizing that discrimination plays a role in individual decision-making processes, such a rule requiring at least one actor with a disability to be auditioned for the role of a character with a disability offers an opportunity for positive change. Although not perfect, over the first three years of the institution of the Rooney Rule, the overall percentage of African American coaches increased from 6% to 22%.
Perhaps more importantly, considering the prevalence of individuals with disabilities within general society, casting actors with disabilities in background and/or as recurring characters, even if the character is not written as disabled, not only increases diversity, it allows your media to reflect society.
I recognize this bullet in my recommendation is about casting, however, I do think it is important to recognize that the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA) has been quietly pushing for a Rooney rule with regard to the selection of directors. Granted, studios and networks rejected the proposition outright, but I have to admit that I think the DGA was on a good track. The difficulty lies, I imagine, in the way films are made. I don’t believe there are broad general “interviews” for directors. Not perfect, but it is a way to increase the opportunity for women and other minority (including disabled) directors.
5. IT BEGINS WITH THE WORLD/WORD. Create more diverse characters to begin with in scripts and storylines.
Our world is filled with thriving diverse communities and when writers create the worlds in their scripts, there is an opportunity to be more inclusive. Writers can and should explore writing more diverse and creative parts for actors/characters with disabilities. Defy stereotypes, change the token stories, flip the narrative. The is also the possibility of implementing a “Geena Davis type solution” (simply change any character in a script into a woman) for disability.
Writers are often taught that if a character has a disability or is a minority or a woman, it must “serve the story” so there must be a reason for them to exist in the narrative. The truth is that in real life, people have disabilities, women exist, and people of color are just as likely to be doctors, or lawyers, or accountants as they are gangsters, homeless, or victims.It may get taken out. It may get changed later, but it begins with the script and there is no reason not to include diverse characters, is there?
6. SPEAKING OUT. This is your industry too.
Disability/Diversity doesn’t belong to one person. Seek to increase disability in your work, but also speak out, encourage others to act, amplify the voices of filmmakers and actors with disabilities. Ask industry members with disabilities to participate in your projects, to judge your contests, to sit on your panels; ask them to talk about everything, not just their disability, ask about the craft. Increasing the visibility of this population within the industry and helping the filmmaking community grow and improve is part of everyone’s job.
 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 501 (1952).
 *Loosely based on Molly McArdle’s “What Comes Next?: 23 Steps Toward Ending Publishing’s Diversity Problem,” http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/26/what-comes-next-23-steps-toward-ending-publishings-diversity-problem/
 Two Easy Steps to Making Hollywood Less Sexist, Geena Davis, Hollywood Billboard. (2013). http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/geena-davis-two-easy-steps-664573