Skip Navigation
Image of two young adults at a computer smiling

New Report: Hispanics With and Without Disabilities Absent from Film

Washington, Sept. 8 – Only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability in 2015 and none of the leading character were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, according to a new report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Inequality in 800 Popular Films.

This statistic is not representative of the number of Americans with a disability, which is one-in-five, or 20 percent. Furthermore, as the report points out, “the portrayal of characters with disability is out of line with population norms in the U.S.” in terms of representation of other demographics – gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT status.

“Depictions of disability are not only marginalized,” the report says, “they also obscure the true diversity of this community.”

Researchers led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith examined 800 top films from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011) and the 35,205 characters in them – noting their gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status and disability status. This is the first time that an MDSC report included an examination of the presence of disability.

Of the top-grossing 100 films of 2015, 45 films failed to depict a character with a disability.  Ten of the films featured a leading or co-leading character with a disability, of which four had PTSD. Only three were women. None were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. The majority of the characters with a disability were supporting (54.3 percent) or “inconsequential roles (32.4 percent).”

Also in 2015, a full 40 percent of films did not feature one Hispanic or Latino speaking or named character on screen. Just 5.3 percent of characters were Hispanic/Latino, compared to 12.2 percent who were Black and 73.7 percent who were white. There was no change in the percentage of any of these races/ethnicities from 2007 to 2015. Only 14 of the movies depicted an underrepresented lead or co-lead. Nine of the leads/co-leads were Black, one Latino and four were mixed race. Only three female leads/co leads were played by female actors from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group, the exact same number in 2014.

“The norm in Hollywood is clearly exclusion, as storytelling simply fails to include a variety of racial/ethnic groups on screen,” the report concludes. “Given that 45 percent of movie ticket buyers and 38.4 percent of the U.S. population is comprised of individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, films do not reflect the demography of this country or the film audience.”

Infographic: Percentage of under-represented characters: 26.3%; 17 films have no Black or African American speaking characters; 40 films have no Latino speaking characters; 49 films have no Asian speaking characters; chart: white 73.7%, black: 12.2%, Hispanic: 5.3%, Other: 4.9%, Asian: 3.9%

The numbers are worse when looking at the two demographics together. Fully 71.1 percent of the characters with a disability were white. Just 28.3 percent were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups – and none of these characters were in leading roles.

A new television show, the Emmy-nominated Born This Way, is bucking this trend with a leading cast member who is both Hispanic and an individual with a disability. The show documents real life as Cristina and her fiancée Angel continue to look forward to their wedding, but have a lot of life skills to master before they are ready to live on their own.

Starring a cast of seven people with Down syndrome, Born This Way is the first-ever series starring a cast with disabilities that has been nominated for three Emmy awards. Born This Way, which airs every Tuesday night at 10/9c on A&E, also is unique in showcasing people with a developmental disability.

According to the MDSC report, the majority of characters depicted with a disability in film had a physical disability (61 percent). Thirty-seven percent were depicted with a mental or cognitive disability and 18 percent had a communicative disability.

The depiction of characters with disabilities lacked a gender balance. Of the 2.4 percent, characters with disabilities were predominantly male. Just 19 percent of characters with disabilities were female. In the 100 top films of 2015, none of the characters depicted with a disability were LGBTQ.

“This is a new low for gender inequality,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founding director of the MDSC Initiative. “The small number of portrayals of disability is concerning, as is the fact that they do not depict the diversity within this community.”

Infographic: Portrayals of disability are disconcerting in film: 2.4% of all speaking characters were depicted with a disability. 6`% physical, 37% mental, 18% communicative, 81% males, 19% females“Disability is the largest minority group in America and is the only minority group that people can join at any time due to accident, illness or aging,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said. “The disability community includes people of all genders, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ status and economic status, and should be represented in film as such.”

Steven Tingus, former Presidential appointee in charge of disability research and policy, and now advisor on disability inclusion in Hollywood, pointed to another issue – the lack of both actors and producers/directors with disabilities.

“People with disabilities account for nearly $3 billion in annual disposable income, a huge market group for advertisers that support both film and TV projects. We must make the business case for disability inclusion in the studio boardroom. There are only a select few producers and creators who truly understand this and who want to create opportunities for disabled actors to play the role of a person with a disability. But, the vast majority of those roles still go to able-bodied actors.”

The report points to the lack of diversity among those behind the camera as one issue when it comes to the lack of diverse characters, which it says must change.

“In line with the findings on leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and those identified as LGBT, characters with disabilities are not at the center of the action. This exclusion of different groups homogenizes the stories that are told and who can participate. It also discounts the experiences and perspectives of individuals living with disability who identify with other underrepresented groups.  Ultimately, film ensures that a very narrow slice of the community is all that viewers see.”

The inclusion of characters with a disability is a welcomed change from previous MDSC reports. When the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment excluded people with disabilities in February, activists joined together to protest disability discrimination.

“We are glad to have been included in the most recent report and are troubled by the research’s results,” Mizrahi added. “But we’re optimistic about the future trends as entertainment in general is making a huge shift in terms of how people with disabilities are portrayed.”

In addition to Born This Way, ABC’s new show Speechless will premiere later this month. This show revolves around the life of a student (Micah Fowler) with cerebral palsy and his family. Writer Scott Silveri, whose brother has cerebral palsy, inspired the show.

“[Silveri] wanted to show the humor in all the relatable situations his family faced,” Fowler, who himself has cerebral palsy, said. “I live this every day, so if something doesn’t feel genuine or real, then I feel comfortable speaking up. I am so grateful that our creative team is so responsive to input the cast has.”

The fact that the character with cerebral palsy is played by an actor with cerebral palsy is important to celebrate. As the Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television reveals, more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television.

The Paralympics began last night. They show the remarkable physical achievements of serious world-class athletes with disabilities. This summer’s Paralympics will feature more than 4,300 athletes competing in 22 sports, making this year’s Games the largest to date.

“We have a long way to go in how film and television show people with disabilities,” Mizrahi said. “For almost five decades, the Jerry Lewis telethon stigmatized people with disabilities by showing what people with disabilities CAN’T do. Now is the time to show what people with disabilities CAN do.”

For More Information:
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: 202-365-0787,
Lauren Appelbaum: 202-591-0703,

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President, Communications, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. From entertainment professionals to presidential campaigns, journalists to philanthropists, she conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible. Behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, Appelbaum engages decision makers and creatives to improve the quality and number of authentic, diverse and inclusive presentations of people with disabilities on TV and film so audiences can see people with disabilities as vital contributors in America and around the world. She and her team have consulted on projects with Amazon, Disney/ABC Television, NBCUniversal, Netflix, and The Walt Disney Studios, among others. Appelbaum also enriches the pool of disabled talent in Hollywood by nurturing and connecting them to those who can assist with their careers, both on the creative and business sides of the industry. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit, which was created to help entertainment professionals to be as inclusive of people with disabilities as possible, and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working behind the camera. To reach her, email

Respect Ability - Fighting Stigmas. Advancing Opportunities.


HQ: 11333 Woodglen Drive, #102, Rockville, MD 20852
West Coast: 350 S Bixel Street
Los Angeles CA 90017

Office Number: 202-517-6272


RespectAbility and is a GuideStar Platinum Participant. GuideStar Platinum Participant Logo
Translate »