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Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

In five years, nothing has changed.

Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017.

A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that across 1,100 films, 2.5% of characters with speaking roles were portrayed with a disability. Just 14 films included a main protagonist with a disability. (By comparison, 18.7% of the U.S. population lives with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) These numbers have stayed level with previous years.

This is not even taking into account whether those characters were portrayed by actors with an actual disability.

The study’s findings were equally dismal with regard to representation of individuals with disabilities on the other side of the camera. The number of directors with disabilities was not large enough to earn its own category among unrepresented African-American, Asian, female and LGBTQ directors.

In fact, no large studies tracking people with disabilities in production, writing or directorial roles have ever been done. The Annenberg research highlights how the rare mainstream representation we see in films like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” or Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” are only incremental steps in the face of the broader problem: the lack of representation of people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.

It’s a topic about which I can speak from great experience. I am a filmmaker with a disability.

Filmmakers dream about getting their work approved for consideration for an Oscar nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That was my dream for my documentary, “Black Women in Medicine.” There were very stringent requirements for securing Academy approval, including premiering our documentary in an Academy-approved New York City theater.

We rented an Off-Broadway theater on short notice. The theater claimed to be wheelchair accessible, an important necessity for me, not only as a person with a disability but as someone who wanted to ensure my film could be seen by others within the disabled community. Two weeks before the film was to open, our producer conducted a site visit and realized the system in place was not at all handicapped accessible. I couldn’t see my own film make its New York City debut!

I made “Black Women in Medicine” to counter implicit biases about African-American women depicted in the media. I never imagined, during the course of all this, that I myself would experience biases about being a quadriplegic. During a later post-screening Q&A, someone in the audience asked me, “Who directed the film for you?” When I asked her what she meant, she replied, “Well, we know you didn’t do it.” I was stunned.

I have had to forge a path where one was not readily available to me.

We have to change the narrative about people with disabilities — our capabilities, our competencies and our ability to achieve and contribute. We must alter the images portrayed in and projected by mainstream media. To do that, we also have to be in the mainstream, particularly in today’s — and tomorrow’s — workforce.

Earlier this year the nonprofit RespectAbility launched a valuable resource guide for entertainment executives wishing to portray characters with disabilities as well as to include both actors with disabilities and those with disabilities wishing to work behind the scenes. Found at RespectAbility.org/Hollywood-Inclusion, the guide is an excellent model for other organizations to follow. Now inclusion is easier than ever.

According to Nielsen research, consumers with disabilities represent a $1 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends and associates, the total expands to more than $1 trillion. Including disability themes — and authentic disability voices in front of and behind the camera — is a winning solution.

Crystal R. Emery, Ph.D., is a writer, activist and filmmaker who produces work aimed at creating a more equitable society on a variety of platforms that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. She is founder and CEO of URU the Right to Be Inc., a nonprofit content production company.

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