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Entertainment professionals across all platforms are working to become more inclusive of minorities. This is our opportunity to ensure inclusion and equality for all people – including America’s largest minority – the one-in-five Americans with a disability. Opening the inclusion umbrella is the right thing to do as well as economically smart given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion.

According to Nielsen Research, consumers with disabilities represent a $1 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends and associates, that total expands to more than $1 trillion. Americans with disabilities represent the third largest market behind Baby Boomers and the mature market.

People with disabilities and their loved ones are your audience. There are 56 million Americans and 1.2 billion people around the world living with a disability, and a majority of people has a loved one with a disability. When it comes to storytellers in film and television, there often are glaring errors when covering the disability community – errors that are easy to avoid.

RespectAbility is here to support your success. We have been working with leaders in the entertainment industry to ensure more accurate, positive portrayals of people with disabilities in film and television. This comprehensive guide for disability inclusion is for entertainment professionals who wish to ensure they are as inclusive of people with disabilities as possible.

Opening the inclusion umbrella is the right thing to do as well as economically smart given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion.

For generations, television and movies have represented people with disabilities as objects of pity. From the Jerry Lewis telethons to stories covering school teams as heroes for allowing one child with a disability to play on the court or field for a few minutes, society’s screens have propelled stigmas undermining people who have disabilities.

What we see and hear impacts our thoughts and feelings, which can have life and death consequences. People with disabilities lack adequate access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities. An increase in positive, diverse and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities in television and film would significantly help to end stigmas. Actors, producers and directors can use their talents through inclusion riders and other means to fight stigmas and advance opportunities. This is especially critical for the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, of which only one-in-three has a job.

While people with disabilities are the largest minority in America (roughly 20 percent of the population), the disability community often is forgotten in conversations about inclusion and diversity. According to GLAAD, fewer than two percent of scripted television characters (16) had disabilities in 2017. The amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability has slightly increased to 1.8 percent, but that number still vastly underrepresents the actual number of Americans with disabilities. Furthermore, actors without disabilities play more than 95 percent of all characters with disabilities on television.

According to a recent report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 2.7 percent of all speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability in 2016 (up from 2.4 percent in 2015). None of the leading characters were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group or the LGBTQ community. “The results of this analysis on characters with disabilities reveal clear discrepancies between the real world and the ‘reel world,’” the report says. “Stories that reflect the full lives of characters with disabilities and the demographic diversity of this community remain elusive in film.”

The representation that does exist is misleading. Almost all portrayals of people with disabilities in media are white, but disability impacts all. Anyone can join the disability community at any point and people with disabilities come from all communities – including African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, LGBTQ and other communities.

For example, famous African Americans with disability include actresses Halle Berry (diabetes), Diana Elizabeth Jordan (Cerebral Palsy) and Whoopi Goldberg (dyslexia); journalist Clarence Page (ADHD); performers Missy Elliott (Grave’s disease), Solange Knowles (ADHD) and Stevie Wonder (blind); Olympic champion Simone Biles (ADHD); champion boxer Muhammad Ali (Parkinson’s and dyslexia); civil rights advocates Maya Angelou (selective mutism), Lois Curtis (intellectual disability) and Harriet Tubman (epilepsy); lawyers Haben Girma (Deafblind) and Claudia Gordon (deaf); and business leader and Shark Tank superstar Daymond John (dyslexia).

Additionally, famous Hispanics and Latinos with disabilities include actresses Cristina Sanz (Down syndrome), Gina Rodriguez (anxiety), Michelle Rodriguez (ADD) and Salma Hayek (dyslexia); artist Frida Kahlo (mobility impairments); singers Demi Lovato (depression) and Selena Gomez (Lupus); nonprofit founder Jeison Aristizabal (Cerebral Palsy); and Professor Victor Pineda (wheelchair user).

It is our view that everyone who works on any aspect of diversity in Hollywood will be able to help ALL – as a rising tide lifts all ships. Television programming and films that represent the talents, innovation and inclusion of ALL of us simply are better.

RespectAbility calls on Hollywood to include diverse people with disabilities in all television shows and movies. Depictions of disability should be focused on the abilities and contributions of people with disabilities, not just the disability. For example, in scenes where people are working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., a character could have a disability – without the focus being on the disability. Additionally, even simple inclusion in crowd scenes is important.

It is also vital for storytelling to show the correlation between disability and negative consequences for people with “multiple minority status” who face “double discrimination.” For example, children of color and English as Second Language Learners with disabilities frequently do not get their disabilities diagnosed or the early intervention they need to succeed. This can lead to school suspensions, drop-outs and expulsions – and an entrance into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The lack of early intervention can lead to homelessness, trafficking, addiction, poverty and shorter life expectancy. Moreover, a significant proportion of innocent people killed by the police are people of color with disabilities, whose disabilities were not understood or addressed in the interactions with law enforcement.

Authentic, raw and real storytelling including actual facts about disability can help enable people with disabilities to get the education, skills and jobs they need to succeed. Indeed, some of the most talented people on earth have or had disabilities. Stephen Hawking used a wheelchair and assistive technology for speech while unlocking the secrets of the universe. Thomas Edison had learning disabilities and had to be home schooled as a result. The founder of EY – Arthur Young – was deaf. Beethoven also was deaf, and some of the greatest singers of all time – including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Andrea Bocelli – are blind. Richard Branson and Charles Schwab, like several talents of color with disabilities listed above, have dyslexia.

This can start with more people with disabilities being visible in front of and behind the camera. Diversity and inclusion processes also are needed inside networks and studios so diversity and accurate portrayals become natural and consistent. Changing attitudes and behaviors takes great communicating, delivery systems and message repetition.

We hope this resource guide will assist you in this work. The tools begin with terminology, lexicon tips, common acronyms and etiquette tips on interacting with people with disabilities. Next readers will find a series of frequently asked questions. As part of the FAQ, we have included more in-depth information on specific disabilities, although this list is not exhaustive. Appendix A includes a variety of resources – such as places for captioning and sign language interpreters – as well as where to find people with disabilities for both in front of and behind the camera. We are here to be a resource and answer any additional questions, so please contact us for help. If we do not know the answer, we will find out who does.


 headshot of Calvin Harris smiling and facing the camera with crossed arms and wearing a striped tie color photo  headshot of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi smiling and facing the camera grayscale photo  headshot of Lauren Appelbaum smiling and wearing a blazer grayscale photo
Calvin Harris
Chair Emeritus
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Lauren Appelbaum
Senior Vice President, Communications and Entertainment & News Media

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