Disability Community Deserves More Visibility in Hollywood (Guest Column)

Diversity and inclusion are two important cultural topics gaining attention and focus by employers nationwide, including Hollywood. And yet, disability is almost always overlooked in this conversation. This award season, in looking across the many films and television shows honored, why are there so few that represent our country’s most diverse population — the disability community?

One in five Americans has a disability, making it the largest minority population, some 57 million strong. However, our stories, meaningful and varied, often go untold. People with disabilities are the most underrepresented population across entertainment and media, with too few opportunities afforded in front of or behind the camera. Variety’s recent article on a USC study noted of the top 900 films between 2007 and 2016, just 2.7% of characters were portrayed as having a disability. What’s more, in most cases these characters are played by an actor without a disability, further limiting industry opportunities for the talented actors with a disability.

People with disabilities “have virtually no influence in cinema and the enduring myths that are being created about them are by able-bodied filmmakers,” notes a recent op-ed article for the Guardian. “The industry is not giving a voice to a huge section of our society and that needs to change,” the piece concludes, making the point that diversity is good for business; it sells tickets. Just look at how female-directed and -starring films like “Wonder Woman” or largely diverse casts like “Get Out” are outperforming at the box office. Likewise, it’s time for genuine disability-forward projects to grace the big and small screens.

Many global brands agree. Fortune 500 companies, like Toyota, Gerber, Target and Guinness, have dedicated national advertising to reflect disability in constructive and relatable ways, while using this same airtime to promote their products. Comcast NBCUniversal and Google make significant R&D investments in “disability-friendly” products and marketing them, as such. From product innovations such as Nike FlyEase, to athlete sponsorships, and global marketing campaigns, Nike has a long history of serving athletes with disabilities.

National media is beginning to provide more prominent space for disability viewpoints. For example, the New York Times established the first ongoing disability opinion series to give people with disabilities a national platform.

As a result of such awareness efforts, public perception of disability is undergoing a positive transformation. These are great strides forward, but we still have a long way to go. Here’s where YOU come in.

Entertainment is one of the most effective ways to influence public perception and advance social change. The industry has the incomparable ability to help shape the way the world defines and views disability.

We are not asking for your altruism. Iconic brands now understand the potential buying power, waking up to this virtually untapped disability market. Recent estimates show people with disabilities represent a market of more than $200 billion annually. This demographic represents new buying potential for the entertainment industry to creatively leverage.

Consider taking these simple steps forward. First, be more inclusive in your hiring practices and casting. The next time you cast a project, make it commonplace to give people with disabilities a chance. Second, when hiring extras for a crowd shot, include at least one person with a disability.
Become involved in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. This film challenge gives aspiring filmmakers — with and without disabilities — the platform to collaborate, tell creative stories and showcase disability in its many forms. Its winners receive invaluable access to entertainment professionals, opening the door to a notoriously difficult industry to enter. Many past winners credit the challenge for creating greater industry opportunities. Resources and support from entertainment partners help grow the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and expand our impact across the entertainment industry, and beyond. Sponsorship dollars and promotional and in-kind support are vital if we truly want to accelerate change.

Engage with us via social media. Encourage filmmakers to enter competitions like the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, so that we increase the number of interesting stories shared about the diverse lives of people with disabilities.

Every day we make generalizations and stereotype people with disabilities — and we may not even realize we are doing it. Easterseals just launched “Change the way you see disability,” a public service campaign, using authentic experiences, to directly confront preconceived notions about others. We offer our campaign as a place for you to start.

The time is now. True inclusion will happen when people with disabilities have a prominent seat at the creative table. The path forward is expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera and increased representation of people with disabilities in more storylines. Help us inspire change.

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