Only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability in 2015 and none of the leading character were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, according to a new report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Inequality in 800 Popular Films.
This statistic is not representative of the number of Americans with a disability, which is one-in-five, or 20 percent. Furthermore, as the report points out, “the portrayal of characters with disability is out of line with population norms in the U.S.” in terms of representation of other demographics – gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT status.
“Depictions of disability are not only marginalized,” the report says, “they also obscure the true diversity of this community.”
Researchers led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith examined 800 top films from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011) and the 35,205 characters in them – noting their gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status and disability status. This is the first time that an MDSC report included an examination of the presence of disability.
Of the top-grossing 100 films of 2015, 45 films failed to depict a character with a disability. Ten of the films featured a leading or co-leading character with a disability, of which four had PTSD. Only three were women. None were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. The majority of the characters with a disability were supporting (54.3 percent) or “inconsequential roles (32.4 percent).”
Also in 2015, a full 17 percent of films did not feature one Black or African American speaking or named character on screen. Just 12.2 percent of characters were Black, compared to 73.7 percent who were white. There was no change in the percentage of either race/ethnicity from 2007 to 2015. Only 14 of the movies depicted an underrepresented lead or co-lead. Nine of the leads/co-leads were Black, one Latino and four were mixed race. Only three female leads/co leads were played by female actors from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group, the exact same number in 2014.
“The norm in Hollywood is clearly exclusion, as storytelling simply fails to include a variety of racial/ethnic groups on screen,” the report concludes. “Given that 45 percent of movie ticket buyers and 38.4 percent of the U.S. population is comprised of individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, films do not reflect the demography of this country or the film audience.”
The numbers are worse when looking at the two demographics together. Fully 71.1 percent of the characters with a disability were white. Just 28.3 percent were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups – and none of these characters were in leading roles.
A new television show, the Emmy-nominated Born This Way, is bucking this trend with a leading cast member who is both African American and an individual with a disability. 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.
Starring a cast of seven people with Down syndrome, Born This Way is the first-ever series starring a cast with disabilities that has been nominated for three Emmy awards. Born This Way, which airs every Tuesday night at 10/9c on A&E, also is unique in showcasing people with a developmental disability.
According to the MDSC report, the majority of characters depicted with a disability in film had a physical disability (61 percent). Thirty-seven percent were depicted with a mental or cognitive disability and 18 percent had a communicative disability.
The depiction of characters with disabilities lacked a gender balance. Of the 2.4 percent, characters with disabilities were predominantly male. Just 19 percent of characters with disabilities were female. In the 100 top films of 2015, none of the characters depicted with a disability were LGBTQ.
“This is a new low for gender inequality,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founding director of the MDSC Initiative. “The small number of portrayals of disability is concerning, as is the fact that they do not depict the diversity within this community.”
“Disability is the largest minority group in America and is the only minority group that people can join at any time due to accident, illness or aging,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said. “The disability community includes people of all genders, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ status and economic status, and should be represented in film as such.”
Steven Tingus, former Presidential appointee in charge of disability research and policy, and now advisor on disability inclusion in Hollywood, pointed to another issue – the lack of both actors and producers/directors with disabilities.
“People with disabilities account for nearly $3 billion in annual disposable income, a huge market group for advertisers that support both film and TV projects. We must make the business case for disability inclusion in the studio boardroom. There are only a select few producers and creators who truly understand this and who want to create opportunities for disabled actors to play the role of a person with a disability. But, the vast majority of those roles still go to able-bodied actors.”
The report points to the lack of diversity among those behind the camera as one issue when it comes to the lack of diverse characters, which it says must change.
“In line with the findings on leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and those identified as LGBT, characters with disabilities are not at the center of the action. This exclusion of different groups homogenizes the stories that are told and who can participate. It also discounts the experiences and perspectives of individuals living with disability who identify with other underrepresented groups. Ultimately, film ensures that a very narrow slice of the community is all that viewers see.”
The inclusion of characters with a disability is a welcomed change from previous MDSC reports. When the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment excluded people with disabilities in February, activists joined together to protest disability discrimination.
“We are glad to have been included in the most recent report and are troubled by the research’s results,” Mizrahi added. “But we’re optimistic about the future trends as entertainment in general is making a huge shift in terms of how people with disabilities are portrayed.”
In addition to Born This Way, ABC’s new show Speechless will premiere later this month. This show revolves around the life of a student (Micah Fowler) with cerebral palsy and his family. Writer Scott Silveri, whose brother has cerebral palsy, inspired the show.
“[Silveri] wanted to show the humor in all the relatable situations his family faced,” Fowler, who himself has cerebral palsy, said. “I live this every day, so if something doesn’t feel genuine or real, then I feel comfortable speaking up. I am so grateful that our creative team is so responsive to input the cast has.”
The fact that the character with cerebral palsy is played by an actor with cerebral palsy is important to celebrate. As the Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television reveals, more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television.
The Paralympics began last night. They show the remarkable physical achievements of serious world-class athletes with disabilities. This summer’s Paralympics will feature more than 4,300 athletes competing in 22 sports, making this year’s Games the largest to date.
“We have a long way to go in how film and television show people with disabilities,” Mizrahi said. “For almost five decades, the Jerry Lewis telethon stigmatized people with disabilities by showing what people with disabilities CAN’T do. Now is the time to show what people with disabilities CAN do.”