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Opinion | Jay Ruderman

TV needs to step up for people with disabilities

In the ABC TV series “Speechless,” Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy, played JJ DiMeo, a character with cerebral palsy. The series ran for three seasons.Adam Taylor/ABC/File

New research from the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation offers 10 billion reasons why TV and movies should authentically represent characters with disabilities and offer more opportunities to actors who are disabled.

Former first lady Michelle Obama once said, “For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them.” In recent years the entertainment industry has focused on diversity on the big and small screens. Audiences demanded entertainment that looks like America — showcasing our variety of nationality, race, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. However, with television’s fall lineup in full swing, what we are not seeing enough of is true representation of disabled individuals. It’s an omission that we, the viewing public, are willing to pay to correct.


New research from the Ruderman Family Foundation shows that viewers want more characters with disabilities on the screen, and for them to be played by artists with disabilities — rather than able-bodied actors. The desire to make this a priority for the entertainment industry is backed by half of US households, which would support accurate portrayals of disabled characters and have a combined $10.4 billion per month in spending power. More than half of respondents indicate they are more likely to watch a TV show that features an actor with a disability cast as a character with that same disability versus a show where a nondisabled actor is cast in that same role – yet 80 percent of roles for disabled characters are portrayed by able-bodied actors.

Content distributors are currently leaving a substantial amount of money on the table by overlooking the disability community. Half of viewers, our research shows, are more likely to watch content distributors where there is a commitment to more accurate portrayals of characters with disabilities, and current subscribers say satisfaction and loyalty would increase. According to our research, advertisers come next as beneficiaries, because those who want authentic representation are younger, tech-savvy, and overspend on entertainment services and products more than other audience demographics.


We continue to meet with studios to get them to focus on this issue and commit to change. This summer, CBS Entertainment was the first to sign the Ruderman Family Foundation Audition Pledge, agreeing to audition actors with disabilities for new productions which are being picked up as a series — and we hope others will follow suit.

Some would argue that pretending to embody different personas is the very nature of acting and point to portrayals by able-bodied actors of people with disabilities that have received high acclaim over the years. This mentality overlooks fundamental stigmas and a stark problem in our entertainment industry. While 20 percent of the US population has a disability, fewer than 2 percent of all television characters do.

In so many ways the Hollywood community has been ahead of the curve, nudging our culture to places of higher acceptance and understanding. As George Clooney remarked when receiving the Oscar for best supporting actor, “We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about Civil Rights when it wasn’t really popular. We bring up subjects.” This sentiment is equal parts true, heroic, and glaringly incomplete.

Our entertainment industry should not only tell stories about people with disabilities but also cast actors with disabilities to tell those stories themselves. Hollywood should put its money where its mouth is, if for no other reason than the viewing public and consumers of mass entertainment are willing to put our money there too.


Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.