Study Shows More Disability Stories Onscreen, but Few Disabled Actors

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Let’s start with the good news: Significant depictions of disability on film and television shows have nearly tripled over the past decade compared with the previous 10 years.

Almost all of those titles, however, still don’t feature disabled actors.

That was the conclusion of a new study released Wednesday by Nielsen and the nonprofit organization RespectAbility, which analyzed the representation of disabled characters on film and TV shows released from 1920 to 2020.

The titles came from a Nielsen database that includes more than 90,000 films and TV shows that premiered over the past century. Of those, 3,000 titles were tagged as having significant disability themes or content.

Films fared better than television — about 64 percent (1,800) of the depictions of disabled characters were in feature films, and 16 percent (448) were in regular series. (The remaining depictions were in other categories like short films, limited series, TV movies or specials.) The database also found a marked increase in the number of productions with disability themes, from 41 in 2000 to 150 in 2020.

According to the report, about one in every four adults in the United States has a physical or psychological disability.

A survey attached to the study also found that people with disabilities were slightly more likely to take issue with portrayals of disabled characters. Viewers with disabilities were 8 percent more likely than those who were not disabled to characterize a TV portrayal as inaccurate, and 7 percent more likely to say there is not enough representation of disabled characters onscreen.

Lauren Appelbaum, a vice president at RespectAbility, said that even though the number of disabled characters continues to increase, approximately 95 percent of those roles are still portrayed by actors who do not have disabilities.

“When disability is a part of a character’s story, too often content can position people with disabilities as someone to pity or someone to cure, instead of portraying disabled individuals as full members of our society,” she said in a statement.

Several films that feature characters with disabilities have made headlines in the past year for their casting: “Sound of Metal,” which tells the story of a drummer (Riz Ahmed) who loses his hearing, was criticized for casting Paul Raci, a hearing actor who is a child of deaf adults, as a deaf mentor to Ahmed’s character. (Raci said he felt comfortable with the casting because his character lost his hearing in the Vietnam War and was not deaf from birth.) CBS’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “The Stand” also faced pushback for casting a hearing actor, Henry Zaga, as Nick Andros, a character who is deaf and signs throughout the series.

Last fall, “The Witches,” the Warner Bros. adaptation of the Roald Dahl story that starred Anne Hathaway as a witch with disfigured hands, was criticized for their resemblance to split hands, or ectrodactyly, resurfacing the debate over depicting a disability as evil.

But there have also been positive representations, like Pixar’s “Luca,” which features a character born without an arm and takes the rare step of portraying a character with a limb difference without making it a defining characteristic.

The report, which was timed to the 31st anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, is the first in a three-part series by Nielsen and RespectAbility, which will also analyze representations of disability in advertising and the media perceptions of audiences with disabilities. Those reports will publish in August.

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