It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that people are drawn to movies and television shows that include people like them. That’s not the only thing that draws us in, to be sure! But it matters whether or not we see people with disabilities onscreen, included within our culture. If you have children you’ve probably noticed that movies that feature any child characters are just more interesting to them. Why would it be different once you’re grown?
This is particularly true if you’re—how should I put this—used to being erased and ignored in day to day life. And for people with disabilities, yes, that’s the reality.
Back in September of 2016 Disability Scoop provided some statistics on our very own Hollywood Problem. They analyzed the 100 top-grossing movies that came from Hollywood over the course of 2015; the numbers of people with disabilities onscreen looked like this.
Overall, people with disabilities onscreen are rare. When they are present, their roles are minimal, and almost never in traditional “hero” or “heroine” roles. They are almost never played by actors with disabilities, either. In fact, a 2016 study revealed that characters that are people with disabilities are cast with actors with disabilities only 5 percent of the time; the rest of the time, people with disabilities onscreen are portrayed by able-bodied actors.
Of all characters with named or speaking parts, only 2.4 percent were people with disabilities, according to the USC Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative.
“The findings reveal that Hollywood is an epicenter of cultural inequality,” said report author Stacy L. Smith, founding director of the initiative. “While the voices calling for change have escalated in number and volume, there is little evidence that this has transformed the movies that we see and the people hired to create them. Our reports demonstrate that the problems are pervasive and systemic.”
There is also a serious diversity problem within the portrayal of people with disabilities onscreen. In 2015, 81 percent of all people with disabilities onscreen were male, and almost 72 percent were white. About half were at least 40 years old, and only two were children 12 or younger.
Of the 100 movies studied, only 10 featured a disabled person in a leading or co-leading role. 45 of the movies completely omitted all references to people with disabilities. Comedies, dramas, and action/adventure movies were the most likely to feature people with disabilities onscreen; surprisingly, animated movies were least likely to show disabled people.
So, where does this leave us? It was inspiring to see Hidden Figures smash box office records and exceed all expectations this year, in part because it was a sort of rebuke: it was a message to Hollywood that people really want to see women of color in fascinating, complex roles that carry the movie. People with disabilities need our own breakout smash successes to help prove that we can help carry amazing movies to box offices success.