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The Emmys: Seeing African Americans with Disabilities in Hollywood

Washington, Sept. 12 – For the first time in history, a TV show staring people with disabilities has won an Emmy Award – and one of the stars, John, is African American! The glass ceiling-breaking show is Born This Way, A&E Network’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries, which airs Tuesday nights at 10/9c. Beating out five other series including previous winners Deadliest Catch and InterventionBorn This Way won the Emmy for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Series at the Creative Arts Emmy Celebration Sunday evening.

The show documents real life as John continues to pursue his dream of becoming a rap artist and entertainer, but has a lot of life skills to master before he is ready to live on his own.

Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, the series follows a group of seven young adults with Down syndrome along with their family and friends in Southern California. Recently, the series was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates.

Until now, no series starring people with disabilities of ANY background has ever won an Emmy Award – and Born This Way includes positive images of African Americans. We know that basketball star Magic Johnson has AIDS, dyslexia and ADHD. Hall of Famer Michael Jordan also has ADHD. Actor Danny Glover has dyslexia. And we are all aware of the successes of famous musicians Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder, both of whom are individuals with a disability. It is really important when people with disabilities can be seen by the ABILITIES they have.

Born This Way tears down barriers in many ways.

Not only does it star people with disabilities, those individuals are diverse. In addition to the fact that John is African American, Elena’s mother is from Japan and they show the immigrant experience. Cristina is a Hispanic woman. This is important for several reasons. One is that when disability is depicted in pop culture, it tends to be all white. Real storytelling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e. African American + disability). Secondly, far too many African Americans and Hispanics in Ameria who have a developmental disability are not receiving the diagnosis, school accommodations and high expectations they need to succeed. Only 61 percent of students with disabilities receive a high school diploma. Also, there are currently 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America – and the majority of them are people of color.

Show creator Jonathan Murray, the innovator behind the first-ever reality-show, The Real World, and many other hit shows including Keeping Up with the Kardashians, said the cast members of Born This Way remind all of us that “every individual has something to contribute.”

“In thinking about the show, we wanted to focus on the ability within the disability and I think that is what is exciting to see,” said Murray. “We are also very proud of the fact that our cast is very diverse. Born This Way is not only the first show to win an Emmy that stars people with disabilities – it also has a cast that includes people who are African American, Hispanic and Asian. This is a breakthrough for those minority communities as well.”

The individuals who star in the Emmy-winning show and their families are models of how disability can and should be accepted and addressed in minority communities. It seems almost impossible that it has taken until 2016 for such a thing to happen. After all, one-in-five Americans has a disability. But according to GLAAD, which tracks minority representation in scripted programs, only one percent of characters we see on TV have disabilities. Moreover, the Ruderman Family Foundation just released a major white paper, which found that more than 95 percent of those all too few characters with disabilities that actually are on television are played by actors without disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.

This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive shows and casting, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing only on the disability. Born This Way, in starring people with disabilities, hits all the marks while also being a fun and fabulous show.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director 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. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to promote positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email

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