By Sara Salam
The entertainment industry has made strides in prioritizing diversity. During the 2020 Academy Awards, actor Zack Gottsagen, who stars in The Peanut Butter Falcon, became the first actor who has Down syndrome to present an award during the show. But there is still work that needs to be done.
Twenty-percent of the world’s population has some type of visible or invisible disability, making this community the largest minority in the world. Yet people with disabilities are systematically excluded from opportunities for social and economic mobility.
In an open letter to Hollywood studio, production, and network executives, the Ruderman Family Foundation invokes a call to action for more inclusive audition and casting practices.
Actors including Orlando Jones, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jason Alexander, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito and Mark Ruffalo have signed the letter. Also supporting the letter are several disabled actors and disability advocates, including Marlee Matlin, R.J. Mittle, and Ali Stoker, as well as creatives like Glen Mazsara and The Farrelley brothers.
While many beloved characters have a disability, opportunities for actors with disabilities are virtually non-existent. In fact, research shows that 95 percent of top show characters with disabilities on TV are played by actors without disabilities. Yet it is still the norm for able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities.
Scripted broadcast programming added nine more series regular characters with disabilities for the 2019-2020 season in comparison to last year, a new report by GLAAD found. This means that the percentage of characters with disabilities has risen a full percentage point to 3.1 percent. While this is a record high, the report cautions the data, “still falls far short of reflecting reality,” as more than twenty percent of people in the U.S. have a disability.
Of the 879 series regulars on broadcast programming, GLAAD found that 3.1 percent (27 characters) have disabilities, in comparison to 2.1 percent (18 characters) last year. There are nine characters across all three platforms tracked (broadcast, cable, streaming) with HIV and AIDS, an increase from the seven characters counted last year and a substantial increase from the two counted two years ago.
One such program is Freeform’s new comedy series, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, which aired in January of this year. A neurodiverse actress and activist, Kayla Cromer, stars as Matilda, a high school senior who is driven to succeed and is on the autism spectrum.
Cromer was first diagnosed with ADD, dyslexia and dyscalculia when she was seven years old. Her diagnosis of Asperger’s came later, which is common, as women and girls are less likely to be diagnosed as being on the spectrum than men and boys. As none of her disabilities are visible, Cromer revealed she is neurodiverse publicly just last year.
“Even though I had learned to advocate for myself in life, I was scared to shine light on it professionally,” she said. “Having the support of my Everything’s Gonna Be Okay team helped me to embrace my disclosure. I feared being labeled and typecast. I want to explore and expand my craft into different genres, to play neurotypical characters too. My biggest dream is to train and join Marvel Cinematic Universe! I am determined to break stereotypes!”
With greater accessibility and opportunity, talented and high-profile actors with disabilities will emerge. Infusing the industry with this largely untapped source of talent promises to boost box office and network revenues while opening the market to an even broader audience, as evidenced by all previous diversity-oriented initiatives in entertainment.
Hollywood recognizes that it can’t ignore diversity, but still ignores that disability is part of that diversity.
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