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RespectAbility Advises the National Council on Disability on the Imperative of Fighting Stigmas that Hold Back People with Disabilities

National Council On Disability sealWashington, D.C., August 3 – RespectAbility recently submitted comments to the National Council on Disability (NCD) discussing ways to improve our education system and expand opportunities in the entertainment industry for people with disabilities.

In the comments, RespectAbility recognizes the gaps in our education system which have been widened by the pandemic. RespectAbility called for a specific focus on black, indigenous and students of color with disabilities, who disproportionally face greater challenges in receiving an education. Additionally, RespectAbility proposed the addition of a 13th year in secondary education to provide a fluid transition for students before entering the workforce.

RespectAbility also highlighted the impact that the entertainment industry has for de-stigmatizing disabilities. Diversifying the entertainment industry to include more authentic representations of disabilities could increase the employment of people with disabilities in all sectors. RespectAbility included a list of key questions and role models to help guide the NCD and the agencies they work with.

Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s Vice President of Entertainment and News Media and Communications, said that “what we see on screen influences how we act in real life, but that is dependent on the entertainment industry choosing to include individuals with disabilities in the creative process behind the camera and in diverse and accurate portrayals, which then helps remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities.”


RespectAbility’s full testimony is below:

To: Members of the National Council on Disability (NCD)
From: Staff and Board of RespectAbility
Re: Public Comments for Quarterly Business Meeting on Thursday, July 22, 2021

Dear NCD Members,

Thank you for much for the opportunity to offer our comments on improving the success of students with disabilities and expanding opportunities in the entertainment industry. Both topics are absolutely critical to the larger struggle to meet the social, economic, and cultural needs of the disability community.

We are writing on behalf of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities. In just the last few years we have impacted disability inclusion on more than 100+ TV/film/streaming entertainment productions.

The National Council on Disability can dramatically strengthen their work by both including people with disabilities and ensuring that all their grantees’ work is fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Closing the Education Gap

The pandemic has made clear that the nation must transform itself to advance racial justice and make equitable opportunities a reality. Achieving that reality must begin by improving educational outcomes for students of color with disabilities. In public schools across the nation, there are 6.5 million students with disabilities. Out of that number, fully 3.5 million are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students with disabilities. In addition, 11.4 percent of students with disabilities nationwide (almost 720,000) also identify as English language learners.

For many of the 1,158,862 Black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, the deck is stacked against them. A key part of that is because, due to structural racism, schools are funded by local property taxes which perpetuates a cycle of poverty. Moreover, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the most central law which gives students with disabilities rights to special education, was never fully funded.

Chart showing high school graduation rates for students with and without disabilities by race. White with disability: 77 White without disability: 89 African-American with disability: 66 African-American without disability: 79 Hispanic American with disability: 71 Hispanic American without disability: 81 Asian American with disability: 79 Asian American without disability: 92 Pacific Islander with disability: 68 Pacific Islander without disability: 92 American Indian/Alaska Native with disability: 71 American Indian/Alaska Native without disability: 74

Figure 1: National High School Graduation Rates for Students w/ & w/o Disabilities by Race – Class of 2018.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs

President Biden has pledged to fund fully IDEA and bills to do just that are moving in the U.S. House and Senate. However, without that funding, currently nonvisible disabilities such as ADHD are not diagnosed, and even students who do have a diagnosis and Individual Education Plan (IEP) do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. Black students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.

Statistics show that unmet disability needs are a critical factor for many justice-involved youths. Researchers have found that one-third of incarcerated youth need special education services and that in some cases, up to 70 percent of justice-involved youth disclosed a learning disability. As documented by the National Council on Disability, fully “85 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent receive these services while in school.” Youth of color, including English Language Learners (ELLs), are disproportionality trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Overall, only 67 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 85 percent of students without disabilities. However, Black students with disabilities face significantly greater challenges receiving a good education from the American educational system.

A 13th year to close the educational gap left by the pandemic

Through examining the adverse impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities across the country, we believe the addition of a ‘13th year’ would be beneficial for the success of students with disabilities. Indeed, states such as New Jersey have passed state legislation to do so, and other states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, are rapidly deploying critically needed resources for students with disabilities. The loss of instructional time has made valuable employment transition skills nonexistent due the pandemic and shortened school year. High school seniors, especially high school seniors with disabilities have run out of time to complete their high school diploma and take advantage of school to work transitional services. In public schools across the nation, there are 6.5 million students with disabilities. Out of that number, fully 3.5 million are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students with disabilities. In addition, 11.4 percent of students with disabilities nationwide (almost 720,000) also identify as English language learners.

Many these students are high school senior students with disabilities that have missed out on high school completion with the goal to earn a diploma and vital year to gain skills needed for integration into the workforce. There is no make-up year unless one is created. An additional year of schooling or “13th year” is crucial to allow graduating students to succeed and enter the workforce. The pandemic should not deny transition services to this year’s seniors. As education is a civil right in the United States. If students fail to earn their high school diploma, then they will be denied the opportunity to go to college. Numerous studies have demonstrated graduates of college will earn far more than college students who drop out. By far those earning the least our students without a high school diploma. It is imperative that students with disabilities in schools the country are given a thirteenth year of schooling to close the gap the pandemic has created and allow them to take advantage of the additional time to complete their high school diploma and take advantage of transitional services to employment for their lifelong success.

Diversifying the Entertainment Industry

The entertainment industry is extremely important for the disability movement because it determines how people with disabilities are portrayed on screen, which often is one of the most powerful forces in shaping public attitudes, especially in the absence of personal experience with talented disabled individuals. When portrayals of people with disabilities are inauthentic or condescending, it has a negative impact on the way that both disabled people see themselves as well as how people without disabilities see them. This includes employers whose views are largely shaped by what they see on screen.

Despite the fact that 25% of adults in America have a disability, only 3.5% of series regular characters on television have a disability (Where We Are on TV, GLAAD, 2020). In film, there has been no meaningful change in the percentage of speaking characters with disabilities, with just 2.3% of characters analyzed in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 by the USC Annenberg School having a disability. While statistics for disability representation for people working behind the camera are not available, our extensive experience working with the industry confirms the numbers are similarly disheartening.

One major cause of these statistics is stigma: people with disabilities have been seen for decades as “less than” – as incapable of doing the job. Stigma dampens disability employment in every employment sector. However, our previous success with placing participants in employment at major Hollywood studios has shown that people with disabilities are just as capable as people without disabilities – and when it comes to advocating for accurate representation, even more so. And by showing disabled people on screen as individuals who are capable in a variety of careers, we can impact employment broadly.

The best source of accurate portrayals is authentic real-world experience, so there is a virtuous circle: increasing the number of people with disabilities working in the entertainment industry leads to more diverse and authentic representation on screen, further reducing stigma and increasing employment in all sectors. This is a prime opportunity to improve the disappointing statistics because (although the pandemic has put some productions on hold) projects are being pipelined for development. Likewise, more animation projects are being greenlit. Therefore, as writers and animators are being hired, it is important that people with disabilities are filling these roles to create this systemic change.

The Power of Role Models and Other Examples

RespectAbility has worked to track and document role models with disabilities through our #RespectTheAbility campaign which can be found on our website.

Role Models include:

We also invite you to read these personal reflections from RespectAbility Staff and Fellows and members of RespectAbility’s National Disability Speakers Bureau.

The LGBTQ+ community and the disability community also intersect in significant ways. As such, we have compiled articles, books, and other resources on the intersection of Disability and LGBTQ+ issues. We also have extensive list of talented Hispanic and Latinx People with Disabilities. And as part of our annual celebrations of how the disability community intersects with other underrepresented communities, RespectAbility regularly posts materials celebrating different History Months.

In the economic boom prior to COVID-19, employment in the entertainment industry grew continuously with an average annual growth rate of 1.9% per year. From 2006 to 2016, total payroll employment across all industries in Los Angeles increased by 4%, while employment in the entertainment industry outpaced regional growth, adding more than 36,130 jobs, an increase of 19.4% (Exhibit 7, “Entertainment and the Rise of Digital Media in the Los Angeles Basin,” Center for a Competitive Workforce, 2018).

As a result of the pandemic, the entertainment industry has shed nearly 300,000 jobs in California, but there are certain areas of the industry still working. According to a 2016 report by Nielsen, consumers with disabilities along with their families, friends and associates make up a trillion-dollar market segment. This economic reality, along with activism of the disability community that discourages inaccurate portrayals of disability and inauthentic casting, is leading the industry to hire more people with disabilities behind the camera to ensure the authenticity of these stories.

Key Questions for Organizations and Agencies

Below is a list of key questions that the NCD should ask of the agencies and organizations that they work with on a regular basis. Truth be told, looking inward often is harder than posing these questions to others.

  1. Does your organization have policies and/or programs that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? Are they prominent on your website and materials? Do you invite people to list any accommodations they might need (e.g., sign language interpreters or the ability to bring a service animal) on all your conference registration forms?
  2. Will ALL people with any kind of disability be welcomed to participate? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?
  3. Do you serve people with disabilities in an inclusive way (welcoming them inside the full community), or are they forced into segregated “special needs programs” which are inherently unequal?
  4. Has someone who uses a wheelchair personally checked the physical accessibility of your offices and programs for people who use wheelchairs?
  5. Has a person who is blind and who uses adaptive computer technology checked your website and facilities for accessibility?
  6. Do your videos and online meetings have captions? Do you have a way to communicate with people who are deaf or use other adaptive supports?
  7. Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as other employees in like positions?
  8. How do you educate your staff, board of directors, trustees and other key people about serving and partnering with people with disabilities?
  9. Has your organization considered how the language it uses may affect its ability to include and mobilize those people with disabilities whose values it shares?
  10. Once your organization has decided that inclusion is important, how will you know that you have achieved it?

There is a need for the NCD to bring a special focus to the issue of people with disabilities in the arts, especially in roles that can combat stigmas. Our Summer Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities is in its third year, and we have been able to place people with disabilities in roles at the Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and other major studios. This program is one with proven results that can be replicated.

The NCD can still have a huge impact on social justice, diversity and inclusion even without funding any groups that focus on those issues.

Just ask the groups you fund to live up to the high values that you know they would set for themselves if they had truly stopped to think about it. You can make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of people who have been marginalized throughout history. You can achieve this in many ways:

  1. Request that grantees explore ways of becoming more inclusive of people with from all background and ensure their work is fully accessible.
  2. Build a more inclusive environment by learning respectful language.
  3. Celebrate great artists with disabilities.

We are all at our best when we are welcoming and respectful of the talents, experiences and perspectives that diversity can bring to the decision-making table. People who have been historically disadvantaged—due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, caste, gender or disability status—all comprise the larger society in which we live. Inclusion and equality mean promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions and systems, as well as their distribution of resources. It is time to add a disability lens to all our work so equality for people with ALL abilities becomes a reality.


These comments were prepared thanks to the hard work and close attention of RespectAbility’s Fellows, Staff, and Board Members. Special credit is due to current Fellow Claudia Runk for her hard work drafting these comments. Likewise, recognition should also go to Nakia Sims, Morgan Davis, Gabriella Marquez, Taylor Ragano, and Taylor Easley who have been active contributors to our organization’s work on policy advocacy, civic engagement and advancing disability inclusion. They represent future leaders who will have a substantial impact on the opportunities and aspirations of millions of Americans with disabilities.

Meet the Author

Claudia Runk
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