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Note: The following op-ed was authored by Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. The piece was published February 13th 2021 in Variety
The entertainment community prides itself on taking the lead in advocating for social change; consider its threat to curtail film and television projects in Georgia due to their laws limiting women’s access to abortion. Racial, gender, ethnic and cultural diversity are now acknowledged as worthy ambitions for popular entertainment.
By contrast, when it comes to Hollywood’s portrayal of characters with disabilities, history has told anything but an uplifting and prosocial narrative. But the entertainment industry is beginning to write a new script on inclusion, a development that is strongly underscored by NBCUniversal’s recent acceptance of the Ruderman Family Foundation guidelines on opening auditions to actors with disabilities.
In taking this landmark step towards inclusivity, the major media and entertainment company has committed to the notion that the more actors with disabilities audition, the more opportunities emerge for them to receive roles and, thus, the potential to receive leading roles.
This disruptive change marks the climax of a five-year, ongoing journey to motivate Hollywood to embrace disability as part of its definition of diversity. In 2016, our foundation’s research showed that only 5 percent of top show characters with disabilities on television were played by actors with disabilities. Yet earlier this year, we published a new study which found that 22 percent of all characters with disabilities on network television are portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability.
Nevertheless, the entertainment industry has a long way to go before fulfilling its true potential in the realm of inclusion. Opportunities for actors with disabilities continue to fall far short of accommodating the vast talent pool in the disability community. People with disabilities remain underrepresented, indicating that Hollywood has a limited view of what inclusion means. Seventy-eight percent of disability-based characters are still played by actors without that disability portrayed. With one-fifth of Americans living with a disability, one would think that the studios, networks and production companies would offer more robust representation of such a sizable slice of their potential viewing audience.
Why is inauthentic representation so problematic? It reinforces ongoing prejudices and discrimination, and since the entertainment industry impacts public opinion, it is reinforcing the continued segregation of people with disabilities in our society. Currently, there is tremendous stigma around disability, as illustrated by the 70 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities.
The entertainment community could use its influence to shape public perception and eradicate our most pervasive inequalities. Through authentic representation, inclusive casting and more opportunities for people with disabilities both in front of the camera and behind it, the entertainment industry could change the public’s view of disability and gain the support of the large population of people with disabilities. For a bottom-line focused industry, this should not be overlooked.
Despite a problematic track record, some television networks have moved the needle. Michael J. Fox — through his revelation of a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis — redefined the narrative regarding the disease, first on his sitcom “The Michael J. Fox Show” and then in his recurring role in “The Good Wife.” The ABC Family drama series “Switched at Birth” provided a forward-thinking mindset about representation of disability on television by casting actors who were deaf and used American Sign Language.
Further, Netflix’s “Special,” NBC’s “This is Us,” CBS’s “NCIS: New Orleans” and ABC’s “Gray’s Anatomy” have all displayed authentic representation and inclusive casting practices in their most recent seasons. The actors themselves are also a central part of this movement toward greater inclusion. George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Norton, Bryan Cranston, Glenn Close, Eva Longoria, and other acclaimed actors signed an open letter circulated last December which called on studio, production, and network executives to pledge to make more inclusive casting decisions.
We are gratified that NBCUniversal has now committed to our guidelines on auditions. Having an industry leader take this bold stand gives us hope that others in the industry will join in striving to create more opportunities for people with disabilities in entertainment.
Society needs to consider disability as part of the inexorable push toward embracing diversity. The entertainment business can play an important role in advancing that objective by offering unique narratives and diverse characters. In the process, Hollywood could boost its profits and help make the world a more enlightened and inclusive place.
Jay Ruderman is a social activist, philanthropist and president of the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which champions the inclusion of people with disabilities.