Moving the nation to become more equitable for underrepresented communities and dismantling systems that create marginalization requires a transformation in culture, practice and the economy. It requires the courage and commitment of every American, the adoption of policies to end disparities, as well as a culture that embraces diverse stories that reflect the full the African American experience and the intersectionality of the disability community.
Some celebrities and business leaders are using their voice to share their stories, educating people about both visible and nonvisible disabilities. They are defying the statistics and have remained highly successful with their disabilities. These role models make a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities. People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Harriet Tubman had Epilepsy, actress Halle Berry lives with diabetes, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Daymond John is dyslexic and Stevie Wonder is blind. Poet laureate Amanda Gorman, who had a speech impediment, recently shared her genius both at the inauguration and at the Super Bowl. Each of them is a positive role model for success.
Further, what people see on-screen impacts what they think, feel, and do. This includes perceptions around if employers are willing to even imagine hiring qualified people with disabilities. Stigma dampens disability employment in every employment sector. However, our previous success with placing participants in employment at major Hollywood studios has shown that people with disabilities are just as capable as people without disabilities – and when it comes to advocating for accurate representation, even more so. And by showing people with disabilities on screen as individuals who are capable in a variety of careers, we can impact employment broadly.
The best source of accurate portrayals is authentic real-world experience, so there is a virtuous circle: increasing the number of people with disabilities working in the entertainment industry leads to more diverse and authentic representation on screen, further reducing stigma and increasing employment in all sectors. This is a prime opportunity to improve the disappointing statistics because (although the pandemic has put some productions on hold) projects are being pipelined for development. Likewise, more animation projects are being greenlit. Therefore, as writers and animators are being hired, our program will help ensure that people with disabilities are filling these roles to create this systemic change. Despite the pandemic, our proven virtual model provides an opportunity to move the needle in Hollywood.
Even though 25 percent of adults in America has a disability, only 3.5 percent of series regular characters on television have a disability (Where We Are On TV, GLAAD, 2020). In film, there has been no meaningful change in the percentage of speaking characters with disabilities, with just 2.3 percent of characters analyzed in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 by the USC Annenberg School having a disability. While statistics for disability representation for people working behind the camera are not available, our extensive experience working with the industry confirms the numbers are similarly disheartening.
The representation that does exist is misleading. Almost all portrayals of people with disabilities in media are white, but disability impacts all. Anyone can join the disability community at any point and people with disabilities come from all communities – including African American, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and other communities. According to Nielsen Research, consumers with disabilities represent a $1 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends, and associates, that total expands to more than $1 trillion. Americans with disabilities represent the third largest market behind Baby Boomers and the mature market.
RespectAbility has worked to track and document role models with disabilities through our #RespectTheAbility campaign which can be found here: https://www.respectability.org/category/respecttheability/
Role Models include:
Muhammad Ali—Dyslexic Role Model Fought in the Ring and for Racial and Social Justice
Maya Angelou, Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist Who Had a Disability, Inspires Generations
Halle Berry: Living with Disability While Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence
Olympic & Disability Champion Simone Biles Makes History While Mesmerizing Many
La'Rina Carolina: Pioneer Breaking the Inequality Lines Between Deaf and Hearing Societies
Lois Curtis: One Woman with Disabilities Fight for Freedom For All
Andrea Dalzell: RN Who Uses a Wheelchair Treating COVID-19 Patients in NYC
Missy Elliott 'Works it,' Serves as Role Model for Young Women with Disabilities
Deafblind Civil Rights Lawyer Haben Girma Advocates for Disability Rights in Media
Whoopi Goldberg: Talented Actress, Comedienne and Talk Show Host Lives with Dyslexia
First Female Deaf African American Lawyer Claudia Gordon, Anti-Discrimination Advocate
Daymond John: Clothing Entrepreneur and "Shark Tank" Star with Dyslexia
Actress with Cerebral Palsy Diana Elizabeth Jordan is Veteran of 40 Shows, Shorts and Movies
Solange Knowles: Grammy-Winning Role Model for African American Performers with Disabilities
Lachi: NY Music Sensation & Ardent Disability Champion
Janet LeBreck: Pioneer of Change and Role Model for African American Women with Disabilities
Tatiana Lee: Changing Media Perceptions, One Modeling Job at a Time
Pulitzer-Winning Columnist Clarence Page Credits ADHD with Making Him a Better Journalist
Lauren "Lolo" Spencer on the Importance of Authentic Storytelling
Harriet Tubman, Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist with Epilepsy, Inspires Generations
Donna Walton Creates Nationwide Movement of Representation with Divas With Disabilities
We also invite you to read these personal reflections from RespectAbility Staff and Fellows and members of RespectAbility's National Disability Speakers Bureau.
KiAnna Dorsey, RespectAbility Fellowship Alumna
Ketriana Hazell, RespectAbility's National Disability Speakers Bureau
Andrea Jennings, RespectAbility's National Disability Speakers Bureau
Tatiana Lee, RespectAbility Fellowship Alumna and Hollywood Inclusion Associate
Laka Mitiku Negassa, RespectAbility Fellowship Alumna and National Disability Speakers Bureau
Nelle Richardson, RespectAbility's National Disability Speakers Bureau
Justin Tapp, RespectAbility Fellowship Alumnus
The LGBTQ+ community and the disability community also intersect in significant ways. As such our #RespectTheAbility campaign has also compiled articles, books, and other resources on the intersection of Disability and LGBTQ+ issues here: https://www.respectability.org/resources/lgbtq/
Likewise, our campaign also includes an extensive list of Talented Hispanic and Latinx People with Disabilities also profiled under our #RespectTheAbility campaign here; https://www.respectability.org/hispanic-latinx/
Lastly, as part of our annual celebrations of how the disability community intersects with other underrepresented communities, RespectAbility regularly posts materials celebrating different History Months, many of which can be found here: https://www.respectability.org/newfellowsreading/