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New Report Shows Lack of Representation of People with Disabilities in Film

Washington, Sept. 8 – Only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability in 2015, 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.

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).”

The majority of characters depicted with a disability 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% femalesFully 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.

“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 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 television, the Emmy-nominated Born This Way airs every Tuesday night at 10/9c on A&E. 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. Previously it was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates. The cast also includes several people of color with disabilities – something not found in leading film characters of the MDSC report.

Also in television, 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.”

Meet the Author

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

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