New TV and Films Featuring Characters with Disabilities

Blog: TV and Films Featuring Disabled Characters

Over Labor Day weekend, autism activists, reality TV devotees and just plain fans of the reality TV dating show, “Love on the Spectrum U.S.” were thrilled to learn that the Netflix program, which premiered in May 2022, was the recipient of not just one but three Creative Arts Emmy Awards.

“Love on the Spectrum U.S.,” which chronicles the dating experiences of young adults on the autism spectrum, won awards for outstanding unstructured reality program, outstanding picture editing for an unstructured reality program and outstanding casting for a reality program. The docuseries is based on the Australian show “Love on the Spectrum” which also aired on Netflix.

Happily, “Love on the Spectrum U.S.” isn’t the only US-produced television show or film to feature leading characters with disabilities in 2022. Check out these other viewing selections.


1. “As We See It”
In this 2022 comedy series, actors Rick Glassman, Albert Rutecki and Sue Ann Pien play three neurodiverse young adults negotiating issues of young adulthood. All three actors identify as being on the autism spectrum while two other neurodiverse actors play characters who are neurotypical. The 8-episode series is available on Amazon Prime.

2. “Panic”
This 2022 series tales place in the sleepy town of Carp, Texas, where new high school graduates take part in “Panic,” a series of dangerous physical challenges in hopes of winning large sums of money. Disabled actor Madison Ferris plays Dayna, one of the series’ main characters. Ferris is known as the first wheelchair user to appear on Broadway. “Panic” can be seen on Amazon.

3. “Only Murders in the Building”
Starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, “Only Murders” is the story of three mismatched NYC neighbors who become involved in a quest to solve a murder mystery. Episode 7 features James Caverly playing Theo, the deaf son of deli owner Ted Dino (Nathan Lane) and there is Emmy buzz around his authentic portrayal.

4. “Thomas and Friends: All Engines Go”
“Thomas and Friends: All Engines Go” from Mattel Television isn’t new, but Bruno, a new tank engine who is autistic, sure is! Voiced by autistic actor Chuck Smith (age 10) the role was written by an autistic screenwriter and producers took care to ensure that Bruno is depicted in an authentic and positive way. Watch it on Netflix.


1. “Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Cooper Raif stars in this dramedy about Andrew, a 22-year-old bar mitzvah party starter who befriends Domino (Dakota Johnson), the mother of an autistic girl named Lola. Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic, plays Lola. The Sundance Festival film is streaming on Apple TV.

2. “Sharp Stick”
Another Sundance Festival feature, “Sharp Stick” tells the story of Sarah Jo, a young woman (Kristine Froseth) who cares for a child named Zach (Liam Michel Saux), who has Down syndrome.  Written and directed by Lena Dunham, this film is in theaters.

3. “CODA”
We’ve already written about “CODA”, this year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, but this film deserves another mention. Costarring deaf actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Dotsur as the deaf parents of a hearing daughter (Emilia Jones), if you haven’t seen it already, you should! Available on Apple TV.

4. “The Barbara Met Alan”
Based on a true story, this British film stars Ruth Madeley as Barbara Lisicky and Arthur Hughes as Alan Holdsworth, two disabled cabaret performers who fall in love and found DAN (Disabled People’s Direct Action Network), a disability activism group. The film is written by disabled screenwriters and includes 17 disabled cast members and 55 disabled supporting actors. See it on BBC Two.

Deaf Actor Troy Kotsur Makes Oscar History With Performance in “CODA”

Actor Troy Kotsur - CODA

In 1987, Marlee Matlin made history as the first deaf actress to win an Oscar for her performance in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God.”

Last week, Troy Kotsur, Matlin’s costar in the Academy Award-nominated film “CODA,” (an acronym meaning child of deaf adults) made history again as the first deaf actor ever nominated for an Academy Award. As a nominee in the best supporting actor category, Kotsur will compete against actors such as Ciarán Hinds (“Belfast”), J.K. Simmons (“Being the Ricardos”) and “The Power of the Dog” duo of Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The awards ceremony will take place on March 27.

Written and directed by Sian Heder, “CODA” is a coming-of-age “dramedy” about a 17-year-old girl named Ruby (Emilia Annis I. Jones) who is the only hearing member of her family. Ruby wants to go to the Berklee School of Music to study voice, but she struggles with the decision because of concerns about leaving her deaf parents (Kotsur and Matlin) and deaf brother (deaf actor Daniel Durant) to fend for themselves in a mostly hearing world.

Based on the 2014 French film, “La Famille Bélier,” “CODA” is also nominated for Oscars in the best picture and best adapted screenplay categories. After its screening at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Apple outbid several other streaming services, paying $25 million—the highest amount ever paid at Sundance—for the film’s distribution rights.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kotsur, who studied theater at Gallaudet University, said that if he wins the award, “he plans to carry the trophy to the cemetery where his parents are buried,” because they always worried about their son’s career path.

“They really were nervous that I was working as a Deaf actor. They thought it wouldn’t even be possible,” Kotsur said.

Yet, even before Kotsur’s award-nominated role as Frank Rossi, a Gloucester, Mass. fisherman, husband and father, Kotsur had success as a Los Angeles and Broadway stage actor, held small TV roles and directed “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie”(2013). Kotsur will also star in “Flash Before the Bang,” a soon-to-be released drama based on the true story of an all-deaf track and field team.

The actor, who is said to be “thrilled” by his nomination, is well aware of the significance of his nomination to members of the deaf community. As he told Deadline, an entertainment industry publication, “I just felt so touched that so many deaf people all over the community are so excited and they’re all celebrating. It’s so important for the group of people in our ensemble who just happen to also be deaf,” he said. “It tends to just be one deaf role in a film, like many of Marlee’s roles in the past, and so I hope that Hollywood is beginning to be more open-minded and gives more diverse artists an opportunity to tell their stories. The awareness of ASL and deaf culture is such a positive.”

UPDATE, FEB. 27, 2022:  Kotsur became the first Deaf actor to win an individual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award for his supporting performance in “CODA”. Additionally, the movie won the award for performance by a cast in a motion picture. Congratulations!

UPDATE, MARCH 13, 2022: Kotsur picked up two more awards for best supporting actor, one from the Critics Choice Awards and the other from the British Academy of Film Awards. Stay tuned for the Oscar ceremony on March 27th.

UPDATE, MARCH 27, 2022: He won! And not only did Kotsur win the Oscar for his stellar performance, “CODA” won for Best Picture. Congratulations to Kotsur and the entire cast and crew of “CODA” for their achievement.

Ruderman Seal of Authentic Representation Awarded to U.S. and British TV Shows


Last week, we learned that “Crip Camp,” a documentary produced by Higher Ground, a company established by former President Barak Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, was nominated for a 2021 Academy Award in the best documentary feature category.

The film tells the story of Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in New York’s Catskill Mountains, in operation from 1951-1977. Camp Jened was a magical place for the campers, many of whom felt they fit in with their peers for the first time in their lives. Later, some Camp Jened alumni including Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, and Bobbi Linn became activists whose activism paved the way to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

The success of “Crip Camp” is a wonderful example of the ways in which people with disabilities and their accomplishments are finally becoming more visible in American society.

But “Crip Camp” isn’t the only example of the entertainment industry’s growing recognition that inclusion is just, valuable and even profitable.

For the past six years, the Ruderman Family Foundation has been a strong advocate for authentic portrayals of individuals with disabilities in the TV and movie industries. On Feb. 22, the foundation announced its picks for the annual Ruderman Seal of Authentic Representation awards.

The awards came about after the Foundation conducted a study in 2016 that revealed that 95% of characters on TV with disabilities were played by actors without disabilities. By drawing attention to this disparity, the Foundation helped to change the status quo. This was confirmed by a new Foundation study released in Feb. 2021 which found that today, “Twenty-two percent of all characters with disabilities on network television are portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability. According to the new study, 20 percent of characters with disabilities are authentically casted on streaming services.”

This year’s Ruderman Seals of Authentic Representation awards went to five television programs “for their casting decisions which have contributed to the growing momentum on the inclusion and authentic representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry,” according to a press release from the foundation. The winners are:


    • NBC’s “Will and Grace” for the final season of the sit-com’s revival in which Christopher Thornton, an actor with paraplegia, played Luke, a character who uses a wheelchair
    • AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” a horror series in which Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an actor who is paralyzed from the waist down, played Wendell, a character with paraplegia
    •  “Sex Education,” a U.K.-based comedy series which can be seen on Netflix, in which actor George Robinson, who has paraplegia, played Isaac Goodwin, a character who uses a wheelchair
    •  “Emmerdale,” a British soap opera created by ITV Studios which casted James Moore, who has ataxic cerebral palsy, as Ryan Stocks, a character who also has ataxic CP
    • Call the Midwife,” a drama series from Neal Street Production and the BBC for casting Daniel Laurie, who has Down syndrome, as Reggie Jackson and Ellie Wallwork, who is blind, as Marion Irmsby. The series has also included other disabled characters who have been authentically casted.

While actors with disabilities remain underrepresented in television and film, the progress that has been made in the past four years is substantial. As Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation put it: “After witnessing significant progress on authentic casting decisions in Hollywood in recent years, we are particularly gratified to see the international momentum that has been generated in this high-priority area. With several British series joining American productions in our latest round of honorees, it is clearer than ever that the entertainment industry increasingly considers disability as an important part of diversity.”

Survey Shows Historic High for Leading Characters with Disability in TV and Film

Blob.Ali Storker

Here at Enabling Devices, we’re always on the lookout for positive portrayals of disability in the media. Happily, such portrayals have become far more common in the past year. In fact, a new study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media revealed “a historic high [8%] for leading characters with disabilities.” Additionally, the study found that “characters with disabilities are more likely to be shown as hard-working; in management; in STEM careers; and as leaders!”

Here are some recommendations for films and TV shows that are breaking new ground.

1. “Run,” a new thriller on Hulu, marks the debut of 22-year-old actor Kiera Allen, a wheelchair user portraying a wheelchair user, something that until quite recently, was virtually unheard of. According to the New York Times, “the movie upends typical narratives about disabled people.” In a Nov. 20, 2020, interview, Allen told the Times, “it feels like it’s going to be the first time a lot of people in my generation ever see a real wheelchair user onscreen playing a wheelchair user. That’s a huge honor.”

2. “This Close” on Sundance Now stars deaf actors Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, who also wrote and created the series. The series is about the friendship between Kate (played by Stern) and Michael (played by Feldman), best friends who are hearing impaired. As reviewer Jen Chaney writes for Vulture, “the fact that the two protagonists are deaf is both the whole point and completely beside it at the same time.” In other words, while the characters’ deafness is part of who they are, it’s not all they are. The show is also about two young adults navigating love, work and friendship—concerns they share with most people their age.

3. “Christmas Ever After,” a new holiday movie streaming on Lifetime network, stars Tony Award-winning actor and wheelchair user Ali Stroker. Stroker plays Izzie Simmons, a young woman who happens to use a wheelchair, coping with writer’s block and romantic trouble.

4. “Carol of the Bells,” another holiday movie, stars RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, best known for his portrayal of Walter Flynn White (Walter White’s son) in “Breaking Bad.” Mitte plays Scott, a young man who was adopted as an infant and is haunted by questions about the past. Scott searches for and finds his biological mother and is stunned to learn that she has Down syndrome. Scott’s mother is played by Andrea Fay Friedman, an actor with Down syndrome known for her work in “Life Goes On” and other TV shows. “Carol of the Bells” is also remarkable for being the first feature film in which 70% of the crew had developmental disabilities.

5. “Special” stars Ryan O’Connell in a semi-autobiographical series about his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy. Though each episode is just 15 minutes long, “Special” tackles “timeless issues with equal parts compassion and wit,” writes Caroline Framke for Variety. No wonder “Special” won four Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Short Form Series. The show, which premiered in 2019, will be back for another season in 2021.

Great Films for the Disability Community

Crip Camp

This summer, a trip to the movies just isn’t an option. Fortunately, there’s a whole lot of streaming going on! Viewing possibilities are seemingly endless, and they include quite a few excellent films and TV shows about living with disabilities. “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” discussed in some detail below, is one of the best, but we’ve also included a list of newish films and programs you may not have heard of that address disability-related themes and/or feature actors with disabilities.

Check ratings to make sure these films and programs are appropriate for viewers of all ages.

Crip Camp:
Though most camps are closed this summer, you can still get that summer camp feeling by watching the newly released documentary, “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Available on Netflix, the film tells the amazing but little known story of Camp Jened, a groundbreaking camp for teens with disabilities that opened in 1951 and closed in 1977. Directed by former camper Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, the documentary, is both moving and inspiring.

Nowadays, it’s relatively easy to find camps that can accommodate children with disabilities. But when Camp Jened opened, there were few camps like it. As explained on the Crip Camp website, “In the early 1970s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a ramshackle camp ‘for the handicapped’ (a term no longer used) in the Catskills [Mountains in New York], exploded those confines. Jened was their freewheeling Utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking and make-out sessions awaiting everyone, and campers experienced liberation and full inclusion as  human beings.”

Camp Jened also became a training ground for future disabilities activists.  In the late 1970s, many of Camp Jened’s former attendees moved to Berkeley, California, a “hotbed” of civil rights activism, where they joined the civil rights movement. Judy Heumann, a Camp Jened alumna who later became an appointee of presidents Clinton and Obama, was at the disabilities movement forefront.

“Crip Camp” follows former campers as they led the “504 Sit-in” which took place in the San Francisco Federal Building for 25 days in 1977. The civil rights protest was the longest sit-in in a federal building in history! The 150 protesters, who pushed on even without life-saving medical apparatus such as ventilators and catheters, demanded that regulations set out in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,  which prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities, be signed and enforced. On April 28, 1977, the protesters succeeded in forcing former United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano to sign the regulations. Section 504 “helped pave the way” for the Americans with Disability Act of 1990.

“Crip Camp” won the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Watch “Crip Camp” here.

“Able: A Series”  
“Able” addresses the need for inclusion in the entertainment industry. (Amazon Prime) Here’s a link to the trailer:

“The Society”
This science fiction show geared toward young adults features a deaf character played by deaf actor Sean Berdy. (Netflix) Watch it here.

“The Politician”
Produced by Ryan Murphy, this show about a teenager obsessed with becoming class president features a cast that includes a deaf actress and an actor with cerebral palsy. (Netflix) Watch it here.

“The Healing Power of Dude”
This series is about an 11-year-old boy with social anxiety disorder who takes his emotional support animal to school. His best friend has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. (Netflix) Watch it here.

“Music Within”
This film tells the true story of Richard Pimentel, a soldier who lost much of his hearing while fighting in Vietnam. Pimentel went on to become a disabilities activist who helped other disabled veterans. (Amazon Prime) Watch it here.

Inclusive Theater Plays a Role in Under the Radar 2020

Four actors with disabilities on stage

In 2019, the theatrical world was taken by storm when three actors with disabilities appeared on Broadway.

Ali Stoker, who is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair, played Ado Annie in “Oklahoma”; Russel Harvard, who is deaf, played the Duke of Cornwall in “King Lear”; and John McGinty, also deaf, played Harvard’s understudy.

While these performances were groundbreaking, it remains true that Broadway, (and Hollywood), are far behind where they should be when it comes to inclusion. And if roles for actors with physical disabilities are hard to find, opportunities for actors with developmental and intellectual disabilities are even rarer.

That’s why the 16th annual Under the Radar Festival at New York City’s Public Theater seems so revolutionary!

A vehicle for showcasing the theatrical work of new, diverse and emerging artists, this year’s festival includes two productions starring performers with disabilities. As New York Times theater critic Jesse Green points out in a Jan.13 review, titled “When Disability Isn’t a Special Need but a Special Skill,” the actors’ disabilities only serve to enhance their performances.

Actor Jess Thom who has Tourette’s syndrome plays “Mouth,” in Samuel Beckett’s “Not I.” Due to her Tourette’s, Thom’s performances are unpredictable. She is likely to go off script at any time due to her verbal and physical tics. Yet that is, in part, what makes her performance so special, contends Green. “…Far from masking Beckett’s brilliance or diluting the play’s power, Thom’s speech patterns make uncanny sense of ‘Not I,’ in the process making it more overwhelming,” he writes.

Performances of “Not I” are “relaxed,” meaning that people are encouraged to tic, talk and move around the theater as needed. An American Sign Language interpreter/performer is present for every performance.

“The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes,” another play in the festival, is written and acted by Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring, Simon Laherty and Michael Chan, who all have intellectual disabilities. The play is set at a community meeting where attendees explore serious topics such as disability, identity, labeling and the social impact of technology and artificial intelligence. Writes Green: “Soon we discover that the meeting has been called for the purpose not of justifying the neurodiverse but of warning the rest of us about a future in which the technology we’ve created will one day, like the shadow of the title, render everyone inferior — disabled, in fact.”

Now that’s food for thought!

For more information about the Under the Radar Festival, visit

Emmys for Two Inclusive Series

Actors from Born This Way at the Emmys

The 2019 Emmy Awards are less than a week away and this year, several award nominees are people with disabilities.

Netflix’s “Special,” about a young gay man with cerebral palsy is up for four Emmy Awards. The show, loosely based on the life of its creator and star Ryan O’Connell, is nominated for Outstanding Short Form Series. Two of the show’s actresses, Jessica Hecht and Punam Patel are also up for Emmys.

A&E’s “Born This Way,” a reality series about seven young adults with Down syndrome is nominated in the categories of casting, picture editing and unstructured reality program. “Born This Way,” which has been on the air for four seasons, has previously won three Emmy Awards.

“Including authentic disability in the diversity conversation is important to ensure that Hollywood does not leaves out the largest minority in the U.S,” writes Lauren Applebaum of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that fights stigma and advances opportunities for people with disabilities.  RespectAbility found that 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by actors without disabilities. Yet, a movement to cast more actors with disabilities is slowly taking hold.

The Ruderman Family Foundation recently challenged the entertainment industry to represent more people with disabilities in its films and television series by asking them to sign an audition pledge. The pledge commits signers to audition actors with disabilities for TV pilots that are picked up to become series. Recently, CBS became the first entertainment company to take the pledge. In a press release, Foundation President Jay Ruderman praised CBS. “It is our hope that other major media companies will follow their lead and foster opportunities that will lead to more authentic representation of people with disabilities in popular entertainment. Enhanced visibility of disability on screen will help reduce stigmas people with disabilities face in everyday life.”

In May 2019, the Foundation began awarding “Seals of Authenticity” to “television or feature film projects featuring actors with disabilities in substantial speaking roles.” One CBS series that received a Seal of Authenticity was “NCIS: New Orleans,” a series starring Daryl Mitchell, an actor who is paralyzed from the waist down. Mitchell plays crime investigator Dwayne Pride, who uses a wheelchair in the show.

“Speechless,” an ABC series that premiered in 2016, also won the Ruderman Seal. It stars Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy. Fowler plays teen JJ DiMeo a character with CP. A Seal was also presented to “The OA” a fantasy mystery show on Netflix. The show stars Liz Carr, an actress who has Arthrogryposis multiplex congenital. Carr, who uses a wheelchair plays Dr. Marlow Rhodes. “Special,” (described above) also received a Seal of Authenticity.

“Each of these television programs has demonstrated a commitment to inclusion of actors with disabilities, reflecting a deeper belief in the importance of representing diversity in all forms in popular entertainment,” Jay Ruderman says. “We hope this Seal, along with the example set by each recipient program, inspires the rest of the entertainment community to provide real opportunities for people with disabilities to be part of popular culture’s great storytelling tradition.”



Game of Thrones: How the Iconic Series Dealt with Disability

Game of Thrones

Warning: This blogpost contains spoilers about the season finale of “Game of Thrones.”

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” has come and gone and regardless of your opinions about how the series ended, it’s left disabilities advocates with a great deal to ponder.

The eighth and final season of HBO’s most popular and influential series to date, ended with Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who lost the ability to walk in the first episode of the series, becoming king of the fictional world of Westeros. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a little person, nominates Bran for the role of king and in turn, Bran names Tyrion Hand of the King (the king’s right hand man.) For a variety of reasons including Bran’s minimal role in Season 8, many viewers saw Bran’s ascension to the throne as an improbable conclusion to the series. It’s one reason why the season finale has drawn mixed reviews, including from disabilities advocates.

During the show’s long run, “Game of Thrones” was celebrated by many in the disabilities community for its nuanced portrayals of people with disabilities.  In addition to Bran and Tyrion, the cast of characters included Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who loses one of his hands in season 3, Hodor (Kristian Nairn) who has an intellectual disability, Aemon Targaryen, who is visually impaired and several characters with a (fictional) disfiguring skin disease called greyscale.

As Meredith Moore writes in Medium, “[George R. R. Martin] has given roles of power and roles of honor to characters with disabilities while also not glorifying them for the sole reason of them having a disability… The characters of GOT that have disabilities are deep and complicated, writes Moore. “They each have their own flaws and motivations and are often conflicted… Having this level of complexity in characters with disabilities is refreshing and allows the viewer to see the characters as more than objects of inspirations, but rather as people with flaws and complexities.”

Graham Sisson a disabilities advocate with paralysis and the executive director of the Alabama Governor’s Office on Disability told Bham Now that Bran’s ascension to the throne in the final episode of GOT is good news for the disabilities community. Says Sisson: “The choice of Bran, who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, sends a positive and powerful message about people with disabilities, and besides that he is one of the good guys.”

Karen Willison, disability editor of The Mighty agrees.Ultimately, I found the show’s ending to be moving and satisfying — particularly because characters with disabilities took center stage,” she writes.

 Yet, in a Medium article written after the season finale, Marion Quirici shares a different perspective. Though Quirici notes that “There is no such thing as a perfect disability representation,” she says that “prior to the final season, [depictions of characters with disabilities in] GOT were thought-provoking in productive and often empowering ways.”

Yet in the end, writes Quirici, by making Bran King of Westeros GOT “reduces Bran’s narrative to the terms of every disability story ever. In short, Tyrion turns Bran into inspiration porn… Bran has become, in the end, an example of the “supercrip” stereotype. He gains special abilities to compensate for his disability, and as a result of his superhuman abilities he is no longer really a person.” Furthermore, King Bran’s title “Bran the Broken” is problematic. As Samantha Chavarria points out, “There is a stigma that people with disabilities—especially those who become disabled after being born abled—are stuck with. We are considered broken, wrong, or less than what we “should” be. This is where lots of ableist thinking and language comes from.

What did you think of GOT’s depiction of disability and the fact that Bran was made king in the last episode?  Enabling Devices wants to know. Share your thoughts on our Facebook and Twitter platforms.


Entertainment Industry Takes Small Step Towards Inclusion

Cast of TV Show Speechless

At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony in March, some viewers were confused by Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech. McDormand, who won the best actress award for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” ended her speech with the following message: “Ladies and gentleman: inclusion rider.” To what was McDormand referring? According to the Washington Post,an inclusion rider is a stipulation that the cast and/or the crew in a film reflect real demographics, including a proportionate number of women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities.”

Last week, Warner Brothers and its affiliates, HBO and Turner Broadcasting which are owned by AT&T, became the first major media companies to release a policy meant to “ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion.”

Though the policy does not go as far as demanding that studios meet target numbers, advocates believe it is a good first step toward making the cast and crews of TV shows and movies more closely reflective of audiences.

University of Southern California’s Annenburg Inclusion Initiative studies diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. This summer, the Initiative, headed up by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, released its annual study: “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films.” Among other things, the study found that “characters with disability face a deficit on screen in film. … Only 2.5 percent of all speaking characters were depicted with a disability.”  Since 20 percent of Americans have some sort of disability, it’s obvious that the big screen does not represent a proportionate number of people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation found when characters in the top 10 TV shows did include characters who had disabilities, 95 percent of those characters were played by actors who don’t have disabilities.

If the industry follows recommendations of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 20 percent of cast and crew members in TV and movies would be people with disabilities. That would be a game-changer for people with disabilities seeking jobs in the entertainment industry.  It would also please audiences interested in seeing their own lives depicted in film. Additionally, showing more people with disabilities in TV and film, would do wonders to raise awareness about people with disabilities — their struggles, concerns, and especially their talents and triumphs.

In recent years, members of the disabilities community have been pleased to see more characters with disabilities on TV and in the movies. From beloved characters like “Glee’s” Becky Jackson and Artie Abrams to “Breaking Bad’s” RJ Mitte to “Game of Thrones” Tyrion Lannister to newer characters such as JJ in “Speechless” and Dustin in “Stranger Things” characters with disabilities are more common than ever before. While we’re happy these actors have broken through, Hollywood clearly has a long way to go. Hopefully, Warner Brother’s recent announcement will be the beginning of real change.

“The Shape of Water” Causes Controversy in Disability Community

Last week, nominations for the 90th anniversary of the Academy Awards were announced.

“The Shape of Water” has been nominated for a whopping 13 Academy Awards including best director (Guillermo del Toro), best actress (Sally Hawkins), best supporting actor (Richard Jenkins), best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer)  and best motion picture!

The romantic fantasy film, about a non-verbal woman janitor named Elisa, who falls in love with a gigantic sea creature, has been heralded  as “a love story like no other” by the Boston Globe, and “a dreamy, delightful masterpiece” by Vice. The News Gazette said the film is “a poignant, powerful fairy tale for our times that speaks to universal concerns — the alienation of the unique, the dangerous power spawned from needless paranoia and the importance of acceptance in a world accustomed to intolerance.”

Yet, in the disabilities community, opinions of the film vary. One objection from some members of the community regards the casting of verbal actress Sally Hawkins as Elisa. While no one is denying Hawkins’ acting abilities [she recently played disabled artist Maud Lewis to critical acclaim], some are expressing frustration that once again, a Hollywood director has failed to hire an actor with a disability to play the role of a character with a disability.

Alice Wong writes about this phenomenon for Teen Vogue. “Disabled people are everywhere, and yet we’re invisible and erased by people with unexamined privilege in the center. An example of ableism: when it’s the default that disabled characters are played by nondisabled actors. Think about the Oscar buzz around Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and the performance of Sally Hawkins, who plays a nonspeaking person who uses sign language.”

Writes Elsa Sjunneson-Henry for science fiction fantasy blog,  “Disabled actors are constantly passed over; disabled characters instead being presented as “challenging” roles for abled people to play. It would have been a much more powerful film had the actress been a disabled woman, especially someone whose sign was fluent and natural, a sign language that she relied upon every day to communicate, and not just for a single role.”

In the same blogpost, Sjunneson-Henry writes: “With the exception of “Children of a Lesser God,” [in 1986] it is the first time I have ever seen a disabled woman as an object of desire.”

While that seems like a positive step, it is overwritten by the fact that the one who desires Elisa, is not a human being, but a monster.

“At its core, “The Shape of Water” asks us to consider what a freak is,” writes Sjunneson-Henry. “Is a monster a god? Is a disabled woman a freak? An outsider? Can she be loved or understood by her own kind, or are the monsters the only ones who can truly understand her? Unfortunately, the answer to this movie was that no, she cannot be loved by her own kind, and yes, she is an outsider. A monster. A freak.”

Yet, writing for the “Hollywood Reporter,” Kristen Lopez, a writer with a disability, sees “The Shape of Water’s” message in more hopeful terms. “As a film writer with a physical disability, I find it hard not to feel personally offended by movies that reiterate that disabled people aren’t sexual. It’s even worse being a woman with a disability, where the lack of actresses playing disabled characters leaves one to question if Hollywood thinks disabled women can’t be sexy at all. But watching “The Shape of Water” gives me hope that maybe barriers can be broken down regarding sex and disability.”

Have you seen “The Shape of Water?” What did you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Share them with us on Facebook and Twitter.


Award Season and the Disabilities Community

Young Men on Wheelchair

It’s that time of year again. In the past several weeks, the People’s Choice Awards, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and the American Cinematographer Awards have all taken place. The Grammys, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards will all air later this month. Though it’s been a great year for film and TV overall, when it comes to the representation of people with disabilities it left a lot to be desired.

Despite the fact that one in five Americans has some sort of disability, it’s rare to find a realistic, three dimensional major character with a disability on TV or in film. Even when a TV show or movie does feature a character with a disability, the role is seldom played by an actor with a disability. In fact, the Ruderman White Pages Report on Employment Of Actors With Disabilities In Television recently found that, “Ninety-five percent of characters with disabilities … are played by able-bodied actors.”

That said, in the past year, a number of TV programs and films featuring main characters with disabilities have drawn praise from critics. “Speechless” an ABC sitcom that airs on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. is especially groundbreaking.


Starring Minnie Driver as headstrong mom Maya DiMeo, “Speechless” is a typical sit-com about a typical family with one important difference. JJ, Maya’s eldest son, has cerebral palsy, is nonverbal and uses an augmentative alternative communication device to express himself. “Speechless” deserves credit for casting a young actor who actually has cerebral palsy to play the role of JJ. The actor, Micah Fowler and his realistic depiction of the teen boy with disabilities has received high praise from James Poniewozik of the New York Times.

“JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) is no angel. He’s sarcastic; he’s a little devious; he can be rude. In other words, he’s a teenager…That JJ has cerebral palsy, which keeps him from speaking, as well as limits his obscene gestures, is what makes ABC’s “Speechless” distinctive. That he’s a flawed kid with a flawed family in a reasonably funny sitcom is what makes ‘Speechless’ good, rather than simply worthy.”

Photo of "The A Word"“The A Word”

Originally created as a six-part series from the BBC, and based on a popular Israeli show, “The A Word” is a highly rated drama about the journey of a family who learns that their 5-year-old son has autism. “For the most part … “The A Word” feels true and honest,” writes Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times. “Other shows that have used characters with disabilities for secondary plotlines have often seemed simplistic or glib, going for quick tears or feel-good moments. This one’s unblinking, and more powerful for it.”

“The A Word” was recently acquired by the Sundance Channel and no word on when the second season will air. Catch up on the first six episodes now.
“Finding Dory”

Image of DoryIt’s unusual to find a character with a disability at the center of a children’s movie. Yet Disney Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” spinoff, “Finding Dory” is a breath of fresh air. Dory, a little blue fish with a cognitive disability, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, endeared herself to audiences young and old when the film premiered last spring. Other characters in the film also have disabilities. “Destiny has impaired vision, while Bailey struggles with echolocation; Hank deals with anxiety, and Nemo has that “lucky” undersized fin,” writes Chris Heady in his review for USA Today. In fact, said Heady, “Finding Dory” “could change the conversation about disabilities.”

Image from "Asperger's Are Us"“Asperger’s Are Us”

This 2016 documentary tells the true story of a comedy troupe made up of four old friends— Noah Britton, New Michael Ingemi, Jack Hanke and Ethan Finlan— all on the autism spectrum, who met while attending camp together in their teens. Kimber Meyers of the LA Times says the film, directed by first-timer Alex Lehmann, will appeal to most viewers.
“If you have an affection for puns or off-kilter humor, it’s hard not to be charmed by ‘Asperger’s Are Us.’ But even if what you find funny extends beyond T-shirts that say “Ask me about my fear of strangers,” the four young men at the heart of this documentary will easily find a home in all but the hardest of hearts.”

On their website, “Asperger’s Are Us,” are forthright about their mission. “We do not poke fun at Asperger’s and we did not form to prove that autistic people can be funny. We formed for the same reason anyone does comedy: To make you laugh!”