Let’s start with the good news: The significant representations of disability in film and television programs have almost tripled in the past decade compared to the past 10 years.
However, almost all of these titles still do not include disabled actors.
This is the conclusion reached by a new study published Wednesday by Nielsen and the nonprofit RespectAbility that analyzed the portrayal of disabled characters in film and television shows published from 1920 to 2020.
The titles come from a Nielsen database that contains more than 90,000 films and television shows that premiered in the last century. Of these, 3,000 titles were labeled with important topics or content on disabilities.
Movies fared better than television – about 64 percent (1,800) of depictions of disabled characters were in feature films and 16 percent (448) were in regular series. (The remaining representations were included in other categories such as short films, limited series, television films or specials.) The database also found a significant increase in the number of productions with disability topics from 41 in 2000 to 150 in 2020.
According to the report, about one in four adults in the United States has a physical or mental disability.
A survey accompanying the study also found that people with disabilities are slightly more likely to have problems with depictions of disabled characters. Viewers with disabilities were 8 percent more likely than those who were not disabled to describe a television presentation as inaccurate, and 7 percent were more likely to say that disabled characters are not adequately represented on screen.
Lauren Appelbaum, vice president at RespectAbility, said that although the number of disabled characters continues to grow, about 95 percent of those roles are still being played by actors who have no disabilities.
“When disability is part of a character’s story, content too often positions people with disabilities as someone to pity or heal, rather than portraying disabled people as full members of our society,” she said in a statement.
Several films with disabled characters made headlines with their casting last year: “Sound of Metal”, which tells the story of a drummer (Riz Ahmed) who loses his hearing, has been criticized for casting Paul Raci, a hearing actor who is a child of a deaf adult as a deaf mentor to Ahmed’s character. (Raci said he was 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 opposed casting a hearing actor, Henry Zaga, as Nick Andros, a character who is deaf and signed throughout the series.
Last fall, “The Witches,” the Warner Bros. adaptation of the Roald Dahl story, starring Anne Hathaway as the witch with disfigured hands, was criticized for its split-hand resemblance or ectrodactyly, leading to the debate over the portrayal a disability flared up again as evil.
But there were also positive representations, such as Pixar’s “Luca”, which shows a character who was born without an arm and who takes the rare step of depicting a character with different limbs without making it a defining characteristic.
The report, coordinated to mark the 31st anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, is the first in a three-part series by Nielsen and RespectAbility that also analyzes representations of disability in advertising and the media perception of viewers with disabilities. These reports will be published in August.