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Disability Representation in the Film Industry



Portraying disability in the film industry is complex and poses several challenges. From hiring non-disabled actors to hold positions of characters on screen with a disability to finding authentic actors, the road to exposure and representation still has a lot of ground to cover. For example, according to statistics from 2019, only 2.3% of all speaking actors of the top-grossing films that year held a part representing a disability. 

Common Disability Representations 

Although several films and television pieces depict disabled individuals, it can be challenging to find a wide array of disabilities shown on-screen. More often, mainstream disabilities, including depression, Down’s Syndrome, blindness, or deafness, are shown, leaving dozens of other disabilities without any form of representation. As a result, many communities of individuals, including those who have cerebral palsy, find themselves underrepresented in the media. 

Although cerebral palsy has made its way to the big screen with popular films such as My Left Foot, Gaby: A True Story, and others, there is still a significant gap in supportive inclusion for the cerebral palsy community in the media. Unfortunately, individual perspectives and viewpoints will not evolve or change without more common inclusions in the film industry of this specific disability that affects 17 million people worldwide. As CP experts, such as CPFamilyNetwork noted, with such a large community, there is a need for support from all media forms, including film, television, and online sources. 

Changing the Face of Film

One monumental documentary film that got noticed for disability representation was CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion back in 2012. This piece follows the path of including disability themes within movies, television, and online sources. How actors portray disabled individuals and the impact these roles have on society is the focus of this documentary.  

Of course, the more awareness that documentaries like CinemAbility, Crip Camp, and others bring, the more accepted roles on-screen will include disabled characters. But unfortunately, individuals who did not have a disability often held these previous representations of these disabled roles. This scenario is known as ‘cripping-up,’ and frequently, these roles were not always accurate.

Many examples of disability in the media would portray the individual as a victim who has a debilitating disability that they had difficulties facing. Some instances would involve them being mistreated by others, emulating the helplessness of a disabled person. Alternatively, other portrayals would showcase a hero that overcomes their disability and forges on to do great things or make a difference in the world. While this interpretation puts the individual in a positive light, it is not always accurate. 

How the mainstream media depicts individuals with disabilities contributes to how the public sees them in society. More representation is needed to include the familiar roles of disabled individuals in the community. While it is great to see a film with a disabled main character, having more widespread representation with even minor roles can be incredibly beneficial throughout the industry. This evolution to more inclusion is the only way that disabilities will gain headway in the film industry.