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Examples of Best Practices

These programs positively change the way Americans feel about people with disabilities; they prove that TV series and films with storylines or characters with a disability are good business.

  • Not an ordinary reality show, Born This Way stars seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they move toward full independence and deal with issues around employment, independent living, education and romance. By promoting success stories of people with disabilities, Born This Way helps to change negative perceptions of people with disabilities. Born This Way has won three Emmy awards, including for being the best-unstructured reality show on TV today.
  • In scripted television, Speechless is a sitcom centered on a family that happens to include a son with cerebral palsy, J.J. The fact that J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy, is important. Actors without disabilities play more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television.
  • Also in scripted television, NCIS: New Orleans features a character in a wheelchair, Patton Plame. Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an African American actor who uses a wheelchair, plays Plame. Currently, a large majority of people with disabilities that are portrayed in film and on TV are white, which makes Mitchell’s role on the show important. People with disabilities come from all communities, and they deserve more representation.
  • In children’s television, Sesame Street has been educating children since the early 1960s. In the 1970s, Linda Bove, who is deaf, played a librarian on the show, educating millions of children to what it means to be deaf and how to use sign language. More recently, the show introduced Julia, a puppet character who has autism. Sesame Workshop’s goal was simple – to create a better understanding of autism in children. The character began in storybook format and then went to broadcast television. Stacey Gordon, whose son has autism, provides Julia’s voice.
  • Also in children’s television, Pablo aims to educate society about autism spectrum disorder. Produced by Paper Owl Productions, the show’s creative director, Grainne McGuinness, wanted to tell Pablo’s story to help children better understand the diagnosis. McGuinness’ inspiration behind Pablo is her nephew who has autism. Not only is Pablo voiced by a boy with autism but also many of the creators involved behind-the-scenes also have autism.
  • In film, Oscar-winner The Silent Child features Maisie Sly, a young girl who is deaf. She plays Libby, a four-year-old girl who lives in a world of silence until she learns how to communicate using sign language – thanks to a caring social worker. It is important to note that Sly, the actress, is deaf in real life, as the majority of films winning for portrayal of disability often feature actors without the disability. This short story, inspired by real events, shows how deaf children can learn to communicate and relays the importance of educating children who are deaf.
  • In children’s film, Finding Dory – a Pixar box office success – stars many characters with disabilities. Dory, the titular character, has short-term memory loss. Nemo has physical disabilities with his little fin and Hank is an octopus that is missing a tentacle. Destiny is visually impaired by her myopia, and Bailey has difficulty with echolocation. Disability is not something Dory needs to overcome, but something she needs to learn to live with, work with and accept to accomplish things “in her own Dory way.” In addition to putting a positive spin on Dory’s journey, Finding Dory highlights the importance of community for people with disabilities. Throughout the film, Dory is helped by Hank, Destiny, Bailey and, of course, Nemo and his father Marlin, many of whom have disabilities themselves.

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