Able-Bodied Actors Play 95% of Disabled Characters in Top 10 TV Shows, Says New Study

Speechless ABC
Courtesy of ABC

95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors, according to a new study released by Ruderman White Paper.

The comprehensive study on employment of actors with disabilities in television reveals the “unjust and troubling discrimination of actors with disabilities in Hollywood,” per the white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

The study proves that people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood.

However, disabled actors have not been included in ongoing conversations regarding Hollywood’s diversity crisis, which has brought light to providing more jobs for people of color and equal pay for women, both in front of and behind the screen.

The report was co-authored by “Seinfeld” actor Danny Woodburn and advocacy content specialist at the foundation, Kristina Kopić. Hundreds of actors with visible and non-visible disabilities were surveyed for the study, which points to that people with disabilities represent nearly 20% of the U.S. population.

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“The protest and ensuing media frenzy ignited by the ‘Oscars So White’ campaign has shaped an ideology around diversity in entertainment. This off-balanced idea of diversity has led to policy and even proposed legislation that has excluded people with disabilities,” said Woodburn. “The Ruderman White Paper On Employment Of Actors With Disabilities In Television is our attempt to bring perspective to inclusion, to reinforce access and an understanding of authenticity as an expression of what true diversity means and to finally let the least represented group in this medium be heard.”

The White Paper examined the frequency of actors with disabilities on the top 10 TV shows of the 2015-2016 television season. In total, the study examined 31 shows across streaming platforms, cable and broadcast networks and determined that only four actors with disabilities were cast, amounting to less than 2% of all actors on screen.

“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,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “This blatant discrimination against people with disabilities not only is fundamentally unfair to the approximate 20% of our population with disabilities, it also reinforces stigmas against people with disabilities. By systematically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, Hollywood is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country.”

Coming up in the 2016-2017 season, ABC’s new family comedy “Speechless” stars Micah Fowler, a young actor with cerebral palsy in real life. On the show, which stars Minnie Driver as his mother, Fowler plays JJ, the family’s eldest child, who is nonverbal. His series regular role is a positive step, in light of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s just-released study.

The Ruderman Foundation plans to host a convening in L.A. this fall to bring the major studio heads together for a roundtable discussion on how to best eliminate discrimination against actors with disabilities.

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  1. Anita says:

    It’s about time there were more people with disabilities in the acting business. I’ve seen many shows and movies who don’t have real people with disabilities in them (the old IRONSIDES for one).

  2. EricJ says:

    Ha, let’s see an able-bodied actor cast as the genius Internet hacker who does the research for the police-procedural shows…It’s the only place you’ll find wheelchair-bound characters on TV anymore!

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