Diversity has become a powerful, controversial and extremely prevalent issue in Hollywood over the last few years. The uproar over the “Oscars So White” campaign was significant enough that the Academy made significant moves to diversify their membership for following years, inviting 683 new members (46% female and 41% people of color), according to this article by Variety a few weeks ago. But one topic often not covered in the discussion of diversity in Hollywood is people with disabilities. As Variety reports, the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our society, has conducted a study on the number of disabled parts being played by disabled actors, and the numbers are very low.
As Variety states, the report is titled the Ruderman White Paper On Employment Of Actors With Disabilities In Television, and it examined how often actors with disabilities appeared on the top 10 TV shows of the 2015-2016 television season. The study analyzed 31 shows across streaming platforms, cable and broadcast networks. It determined that only four actors with disabilities were cast, amounting to less than 2% of all actors on screen. The study also determined that 95% of disabled characters in these shows were played by able-bodied actors.
Variety quotes Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation saying, “The entertainment industry has a significant impact on how our society views various minority groups. Part of this is rooted in the fact that our population spends more time watching television than socializing with friends. Because of the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities, we very rarely see people with real disabilities on screen.”
Clearly, as the report suggests, there is more work to be done, and according to Jay Ruderman, an important place to start is with the visibility of disabled people via the media. As Variety details, the report also mentions that, based on their estimates, 20% of the population is disabled. The study was only a small sampling, because there are far more than 31 shows on the air, and Variety did not specify what 10 shows qualified as the Top Ten. However, the Ruderman Foundation sees it as a starting point. Variety reports that the foundation is planning to convene a discussion with major studio heads on disabilities in entertainment this fall.
Variety also highlights that the issue is clearly getting better. In the 2016-2017 season, ABC will be premiering a new comedy called Speechless, starring Minnie Driver. Variety reports that the show also stars Micah Fowler, who suffers from cerebral palsy. On the show, Driver plays Fowler’s mother, and Fowler plays JJ, who is nonverbal. So as with many of the issues of diversity in Hollywood today, the landscape is changing, just not always as quickly as one might hope. However, reports and studies like those from the Ruderman Foundation could help get the changes moving faster.