What This Year's Oscar Nominees Got Right -- and Wrong -- About Disability


The 2017 Academy Award nominations were released yesterday. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, four have themes or sub-plots related to disability. “Manchester by the Sea” includes themes of mental health, alcoholism and drug use. Likewise, “Moonlight” includes story lines surrounding drug addiction. “Arrival,” a science-fiction film, includes a child with cancer.

“Fences,” a film that has received multiple accolades for its racially diverse themes, also includes a disability storyline. Lead character Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington)’s older brother Gabe Maxson (Mykelti Williamson) sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during World War II. Children in the neighborhood often torment Gabe. When Troy bails Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, Troy unknowingly signs a paper that routes half of Gabe’s pension to a psychiatric hospital, forcing Gabe to be institutionalized.

Williamson does not have a disability himself, which is quite common when it comes to casting actors portraying people with disabilities. The Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television found that non-disabled actors on television play more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities. When asked by the Los Angeles Times about playing the role of someone with a TBI, Williamson acknowledged the many variables and “different levels of injury and effect” of someone with a TBI.

In the full-length documentary category, “Life, Animated,” a film about Owen, a boy with autism, was nominated. The film shows how Owen, who was unable to speak as a child, and his father are able to connect using Disney animated films.

One film that exemplified the positive portrayal of disability this year is “Finding Dory,” yet it was not nominated for an Oscar. It was the number one film at the domestic box office last year. Financial successes like this film show that positive portrayal of disability is a winning theme. In “Finding Dory,” disability is not something Dory needs to overcome, but something she needs to learn to accept and work with to accomplish things “in her own Dory way.”

But while these films include disability themes, no known actor or other individual with a disability was nominated for an Oscar. As previously noted, more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors on television. When an actor mimics someone from any minority group, whether it be racial or disability, he takes a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic and perpetuates that group’s under-representation in the industry.

Including Disability in Diversity

Fences,” as well as “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” are all films nominated for Best Picture that have been noted to be racially diverse. In addition, six black actors have received a nomination, which is a record high.

“The studios and major film distributors really gave it to us this year,” said Gil Robertson, the African American Film Critics Association’s co-founder and president. “By any measurement, it’s been an exceptional year for blacks in film. From comedies to high-quality dramas and documentaries, 2016 will forever represent a bonanza year for black cinema, and all cinema really.”

In a statement, Robertson also spoke of the importance of other minority communities, listing out the “Asian, Hispanic, Native American and LGBT communities,” but he failed to include the disability community – a common occurrence even among the best intentioned.

People with disabilities are the largest minority in America, with almost one-in-five Americans having a disability. Yet the disability community is often forgotten in diversity conversations. According to GLAAD, fewer than 2 percent of scripted television characters (15) have disabilities. In addition to the lack of representation in general, what does exist is misleading. Almost all portrayals of people with disabilities in media are white, despite the fact that disability impacts all ethnicities.

According to a recent report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in film were shown to have a disability in 2015 and none of the leading character were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. “Depictions of disability are not only marginalized,” the report says, “they also obscure the true diversity of this community.”

It is important to note that anyone can join the disability community at any point in time and that people with disabilities come from all communities – including the African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and LGBTQ communities.

Advocating from Within

Meryl Streep, who spoke out about the importance of not making fun of people with disabilities during her Golden Globe lifetime achievement award speech, has marked another lifetime achievement – her 20th Academy Award nomination. Our group, RespectAbility, previously called on Streep to “walk the walk” when it comes to full inclusion of people with disabilities. Actors with influence like Streep have the power and influence to ensure that television and movies include people with disabilities with accurate and positive portrayals. This includes not only characters but the actors themselves – as well as jobs on the other side of the camera.

Streep is a three-time Academy Award winner who has been nominated for a record 19 Oscars and 30 Golden Globes. Change takes a lot more than pointing fingers at someone else’s shortcomings. It takes personal action and leadership. As one of the world’s finest artists and actors, she has tremendous power. How great would it be if the next time she was cast in a film or television show, she simply asked the script writers to ensure that the diversity of the roles, including people with disabilities, reflected society at large?

What people see and hear impacts what they think and feel – and what they think and feel has life-and-death consequences. People with disabilities lack access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities. Medical professionals withhold treatments due to valuing people with disabilities less than those without disabilities. This ranges from OB/GYNs recommending abortions for fetuses with non-fatal prenatally diagnosed conditions to orthodontists not placing braces because of prejudice.

A major Princeton study showed that people with disabilities are seen as warm, not competent. Similarly, a Cornell Hospitality Quarterly study revealed companies are concerned that people with disabilities could not do the required work. Thus, employers who are affected by what they see out of Hollywood do not want to give people with disabilities a chance.

An increase in positive, diverse and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities in television and film can significantly help to end stigmas that limit their health and lives. Award-winning actors, producers and directors can use their immense talents to help fight stigmas and advance opportunities for the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, only one-in-three of whom has a job today.

RespectAbility wants to see many more great shows come out of Hollywood – like A&E’s Emmy-winning and stigma-busting docu-series “Born this Way,” starring diverse young adults with Down syndrome who achieve in education, employment and good health. There should be more role models like those seen in “Speechless,” “Superstore” and “Finding Dory.”

In addition to television shows and movies highlighting disability, RespectAbility calls on Hollywood to include people with disabilities in all television shows and movies, like Arizona, an accomplished doctor on Grey’s Anatomy.

There is good work being done by SAG-AFTRAGLAAD, the Media Access Awards, and other key leaders from the television, film and disability community. However, much more must be done to tear down stigmas that undermine people with disabilities’ opportunities to receive the education, training and employment opportunities needed to succeed, just like anyone else.

Big stars can do a lot. But so too can showrunners, creative executives, writers, casting agents, actors and others. Changing hearts, minds and behaviors takes great messages, delivery systems and message repetition. Diversity and inclusion processes are also needed inside networks and studios so diversity and accurate portrayals become natural and consistent.

Learn more at RespectAbility.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.


Related to Disability

Girl with Down syndrome. Her hand is covered in rainbow paint.

Why Donald Trump's Abortion Views Won't Help People With Disabilities

Like many — but far from all — people with disabilities, I am deeply dismayed at the behavior of the new President of the United States, Donald Trump. In the few days since he has taken office, his administration has deleted government sites on topics crucial to my identity and life, including disability pages, and proposed [...]
D0nald Trump.

Why I Voted for Trump as a Woman With a Disability

I’m a definite minority in so many ways on a daily basis. But when it comes to politics, I often feel like a minority even within the disability community. I’m a woman who has cerebral palsy, and I am pleased that Donald Trump won the election. In fact, I’m thrilled about the inauguration while most [...]
Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing.

Thousands Sign Petition Stating Betsy DeVos Is Unfit to Serve Special Needs Families

Last week’s senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Department of Education Secretary, has left thousands of special needs parents across the country concerned about the future of their children’s educational opportunities, prompting more than 100,000 people to sign a petition asking the Senate not to confirm DeVos. Fear over DeVos’ confirmation comes [...]
Wheelchair user trying to board a bus.

Why You Shouldn't Touch Someone's Wheelchair Without Permission

You wouldn’t grab a person’s walking stick… You wouldn’t take a person’s cane from them… So why do so many able-bodied people think it’s fine to move a person’s wheelchair without consulting the person who uses it? A lot of people see me in a wheelchair as a chance to do a “good deed” of [...]