By Amanda Gurall
If you looked at the top 10 watched television shows in 2015-16 and found that there were only 20 characters who were a minority and only one was actually played by that minority how would that make you feel? If we had 19 male actors playing women and only one biological woman on an entire year of television wouldn’t there be a well deserved national outrage? How about actors playing a different race? Would you stand for that?
This is exactly what the state of all media is today for disabled people. We account for 55 million American citizens yet our representation in all media is a complete disgrace. This past July a study was released of the top 10 network television shows and the following minorities were represented:
- 16% African American
- 43% Women
- 33% People of Color in general
- 5% Disabled people with 19 out of 20 parts played by able bodied actors
The numbers are slightly better on streaming networks however it is still an abysmal representation of almost 20% of the population. All of these numbers need to improve.
NYCC has held several panels relating to people with disabilities this year including the one I attended called Where are the Wheelchairs: Disability in Media with disabled performers and advocates.
- Steve Way: Motivational speaker, comedian and substitute teacher
- Dominick Evans: Transgender filmmaker and disabled activist at the Center for Disability
- Day Al-Mohamed: Host of the Geek Girl podcast and science fiction writer
- Jillian Mercado: Performer, the only disabled model represented by IGM
- Maysoon Zayid: Comedian, activist
So with representation this dire in media we have to ask why? The answer is pretty clear to Maysoon who said that it is because the disabled represent everything that the average able bodied person fears and does not want to see.
Within this lack of diversity we have further issues of disabled characters being primarily white, primarily male and heteronormative. There are obviously disabled people of all backgrounds but if you look at media you wouldn’t know it. These characters almost never have any sexuality or romance and we never see their day to day life. They are often without disabled peers or a community, serving as a lonely token for the “real” cast. Disabled people often fall into several stereotypes in stories from the hero who overcomes their disadvantage to make people feel good to the mangled villain or pathetic friend who only exists to support their able bodied friend. You don’t need me to tell you how ridiculous this all is or how harmful this is to society.
Personally I think the most offensive and possibly the most harmful aspect of this ableism is the casting of non-disabled actors into disabled parts. Some actors have gone out of their way to make amends or the community after they took a role in which they “cripped up” like Jeffrey Tambor of Transparent. It’s great to listen to a community after the fact but we have to get out in front of it and get them to listen before a project is made. Until actors start saying no to these parts, until these roles are taken more seriously and until able bodied writers stop writing disabled characters it will continue.
Common arguments are that there are not enough disabled performers, that there are no famous disabled performers, and that they can’t possibly handle working. All of this is untrue and impossible to create if they are not given a chance. But I remember some in the 80s and 90s, you might say! Representation has gone down severely since then and while we are not entirely sure why this is the only minority group to do so.
How do we help make this change? The last few years have been full of baby steps and giant leaps forward in acceptance and equality for many groups of people and we need to simply start bringing this issue to light on the biggest scale we can. Contact every media outlet or show you love and demand they use actors and change the portrayal of characters. Encourage and praise them when they do. When actors make awful comments or take roles they should not be doing please contact them and shame them publicly into being forced to recognize the issue. Look at your own life, whether you have any type of disability or not and start thinking like someone who is aware and wanting things to change because by talking to friends and family, by asking about this issue at con panels and in online forums you have the power to be an agent of change.
Until society as a whole stops fearing the disabled and the chronically ill we will live lives with unnecessary difficulty and children will continue to grow up lacking empathy and understanding. Jillian Mercado told a story at the panel that summed this up very well. She was at a bar with friends having fun when a stranger came up to her and said with a thoughtless smile, “Wow, I don’t know how you do it! If I were you I’d shoot myself in the head.”
This has happened to her five times in recent years.
Please follow the panel guests on social media and start being part of the solution.
- www.dominickevans.com @dominickevans
- www.thesteveway.com @thesteveway
- www.maysoon.com @maysoonzayid
- www.manufactured1987.com @jilly_peppa
- www.dayalmohammed.com @DayAlMohammed