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Annenberg Study Shows Significant Increase of Leads/co-Leads with Disabilities in Top-Grossing Films

“Disability inclusion is win-win for studios – driving equity and profitability”

Los Angeles, California, Sept. 24 – A new study has found there has been a significant increase in the number of leads/co-leads with disabilities in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019. Indeed, a total of 19 films featured a lead or co-lead character with a disability, which is a significant increase from both 2018 (9 films) and 2015 (10 films), according to the study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which has examined the top 1,300 films between 2007 and 2019. Furthermore, more than 40% of these disabled leads were female-identified. Eleven of these leads were boys/men and eight were girls/women. However, just four were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group and only one showcased a leading disabled character from the LGBTQ+ community, leaving a lot of room for additional improvement.

“Disability inclusion is a win-win for studios – driving equity and profitability,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts as the organization’s Vice President of Communications and author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit. “As 1-in-5 people have a disability and audiences crave authentic content, disability inclusion can be a part of box office success and profitability. However, while this increase in lead characters with disabilities should be celebrated, the overall percentage of disabled characters is dismal. In fact, the difference between the percentage of speaking characters with disabilities and reality in the U.S. population is the largest difference in the inclusion crisis in film, at 24.9% (27.2% of U.S. population versus 2.3% of speaking characters).”

There has been no meaningful change in the percentage of speaking characters with disabilities in these top-grossing films in the past five years. Just 2.3% of the 4,451 characters analyzed in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 have a disability. When the Annenberg study began tracking disability five years ago, it found 2.4% of speaking characters had disabilities in 2015, staying fairly consistent at 2.7% in 2016 and 2.5% in 2017. In 2018, this percentage dropped to 1.6% and the 2019 number of 2.3%, while a growth from the previous year, is still lower than 2015-2017.

“Including characters with disabilities does not happen by accident,” Appelbaum added. “What we see on screen influences how we act in real life, but that is dependent on filmmakers choosing to include individuals with disabilities in diverse and accurate portrayals. Thus, when just 2.3 percent of the 100 top-grossing films include speaking characters with disabilities, the disability community is pretty much erased on screen. When filmmakers choose to include characters with disabilities, they can help to remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities.”

Because of this, RespectAbility has been active in educating the film industry on not just why but also how to be more inclusive and accessible. The nonprofit disability inclusion organization released The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit in March 2018 and has followed up by providing consultations on scripts; conducting trainings for writers, producers, marketing & PR teams, and others; and providing connections to experienced individuals with disabilities ready to work on a film. The Producers Guild, for example, recently published a piece in the ProducedBy magazine on how to reach, connect with and support people with disabilities. The hope is to create enough buy-in to ensure that filmmakers and writers intentionally include characters with disabilities in their work.

USC Annenberg Infographic: Characters with disabilities face a deficit on screen, 2.3% of all speaking characters were depicted with a disability, 48 movies ddid not include any characters with a disabilities

In 2019, 48 of the 100 top-grossing movies completely erased disability by not including a single speaking or named character with a disability. This number is less than 2018 (58) but similar to 2017 (45). Additionally, 77 movies did not include any girls or women with disabilities. Not a single film examined since 2015 featured proportional representation of speaking characters with disabilities when compared to the U.S. population (27%).

The majority (64.7%) of the disabled characters were shown to have a physical disability such as being an amputee or paraplegic. Furthermore, 29.4% of characters have a cognitive disability, such as PTSD, depression, psychosis or memory loss, and 28.4% of characters were shown with a communicative disability, such as blindness or deafness or having a stutter. As a character could experience a disability in more than one domain, the percentages do not total to 100%.

“Entertainment contributes to our values and ideals,” RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion Associate Tatiana Lee added. “With just 2.3 percent of speaking characters having disabilities in film, we will continue to work with entertainment leaders to promote diverse, inclusive and authentic media portrayals on TV and in film. Disability impacts every gender, race, age and sexual orientation. We want the film industry to understand that accurate, authentic and diverse portrayals of disability benefit everyone.”

Disability Affects All

Despite the fact that people of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, etc., have disabilities, the films evaluated in this study do not show it.

The study found that disability representation skewed male, White and older. In fact, when looking at all of 102 speaking characters with disabilities, 67.6% were male, 66% were White and 59.6% were 40 years of age or older.

Just nine characters were under 12 and just 14 characters were between the ages of 12 and 20, further stigmatizing children with disabilities by erasure. This is important to children with disabilities who want to see themselves reflected on screen as well as for other children to learn to be accepting of people different than themselves.

Of these 100 top-grossing films of 2019, just three disabled characters are part of the LGBTQ community. Looking at the 5-year, 500 movie sample, just seven disabled characters are part of the LGBTQ community. None of the speaking characters with a disability were transgender.

These results, unfortunately, have been consistent across the five years that USC has included disability in their study. Therefore, even when films include disability, most films erase the diverse experiences and voices of the disability community.

“These findings suggest that continuing to push forward on, issues of disability is essential, but with an eye toward intersectionality,” the study states.

Looking Behind the Camera

While the USC study examines representation by gender and race behind the camera as well, there are no statistics provided for people with disabilities. According to the study, the researchers pulled information for above the line positions behind the camera from IMDbPro.com per film, as well as online sources such as Variety Insight and Studio System. “In cases where judgments were difficult or impossible to ascertain (i.e., no online information about identity), we contacted the individual in question or members of their creative team (e.g., agent),” the study explains. Currently, no major production company tracks disability status for any of its employees, so the data does not yet exist. This information also is not typically listed on sites such as IMDbPro.com, Variety Insight and Studio System.

More authentic disability stories will not be portrayed on film until there are more people with disabilities hired in all roles behind the camera. For the past two years, RespectAbility has been running a Lab specifically for diverse entertainment professionals with disabilities working behind the camera, ensuring a pipeline of talent for these roles.

Comparing Studios

The USC study also released data by studio. According to the data, 40 percent of 20th Century Fox’s films include a lead or co-lead with a disability. According to USC, “this was assessed as an attribute that was present or absent for the character and does not reflect whether the disability was the focus of the story.” Furthermore, 25% of Lionsgate’s films and 22% each from the Walt Disney Company and Paramount each have 22% included a lead or co-lead with a disability.

When examining the percentage of speaking characters with a disability, Lionsgate led with 3% while each of the other studios came in at 2%. However, when comparing proportional representation to the number of people with a disability in the U.S., all of the studios came in at zero.

“With the market size of the extended disability community being 63%, opening the inclusion umbrella is not just the right thing to do,” added Appelbaum. “It also is economically smart, as the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion, according to Nielsen.”

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 LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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