TV study claims 95% of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors

The research says that people with disabilities are the worst represented minority in the media

Disability, disabled, Television, Ruderman White Paper, Ruderman Family Foundation, Micah Fowler, Minnie Driver

Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler [far right] lead the cast of 'Speechless' [ABC]

A new study examining the representation of persons with disabilities on television has concluded that 95% of disabled characters in the top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors. The research, carried out by the Ruderman Family Foundation, claims that the figures reveal an “unjust and troubling discrimination of actors with disabilities in Hollywood.”

The paper, co-written by the dwarf actor and disability rights activist Danny Woodburn and Kristin Kopić, looked at more than 30 TV shows across multiple platforms, including cable, network, and streaming services. Based on the 2015-2016 television season, the researchers found that only four actors with disabilities had been cast, representing fewer than 2% of all of the actors on screen, despite people with disabilities accounting for almost 20% of the US population.

According to the study, this makes disabled persons the single most underrepresented minority on television screens.

“The protest and ensuing media frenzy ignited by the ‘Oscars So White’ campaign has shaped an ideology around diversity in entertainment. This off-balanced idea of diversity has led to policy and even proposed legislation that has excluded people with disabilities,” Woodburn told the Hollywood trade paper Variety.

“The Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television is our attempt to bring perspective to inclusion, to reinforce access and an understanding of authenticity as an expression of what true diversity means and to finally let the least represented group is this medium be heard,” he added.

The researchers praised the new ABC drama Speechless, which stars British actress Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy as her son JJ. But while Speechless is a step in the right direction for the industry, the Ruderman Foundation says more studios need to take action on hiring actors with disabilities.

“The entertainment industry has a significant impact on how our society views various minority groups,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation. “Part of this is rooted in the fact that our population spends more time watching television than socialising with friends. Because of the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities, we very rarely see people with people with real disabilities on screen.

“This blatant discrimination against people with disabilities not only is fundamentally unfair to the approximate 20% of our population with disabilities, it also reinforces stigmas against people with disabilities. But systematically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, Hollywood is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country.”

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