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Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television. What compounds the problem is the fact that even when characters with disabilities are featured on the small screen, they are far too often played by actors without disabilities.
We conducted an investigation into the frequency of actors with disabilities on the top-ten television shows toward the end of the 2015-2016 TV season. We also did the same for the top twenty-one shows that are original content featured on streaming platforms. Finally, we conducted a survey of actors with disabilities to assess their perspectives and personal experiences in the television industry.
In addition to our data collection, Danny Woodburn also lays out his decades of experience in the television business and highlights the problems with our currently accepted definition of “diversity” as well as the systemic hurdles performers with disabilities have to combat in order to be employed in television.
We found that more than 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television. While streaming platforms had a better percentage, they also had a lower overall count of characters with disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.
The overall experience of actors with disabilities as noted in our survey is a negative one. They repeatedly echo the frustrations and struggles against the systemic discrimination they face in the television industry.
This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive casting, through the use of Computer Graphics (CG) to create ability, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing on the disability. We also provide a list of resources where actors with disabilities can be proactively reached.