Until It Honors Disabled Performers, The Oscars Can Never Truly Be Diverse

flickr/Prayitno
Last night, the film industry proved it’s getting better at inclusion. But it still has a long way to go.

Last night, as millions of people across the world participated in the annual tradition of watching the Oscars, I hung out with my boyfriend and dogs, avoiding the ceremony altogether.

My reason for this was simple: As a disabled woman, I refuse to watch the Oscars or any other awards show until they start reflecting the makeup of our country — and that includes people with disabilities.

It’s common knowledge at this point that the Academy Awards, despite nods to progressivism and inclusion, has long lacked diverse representation. In 2016, the important #OscarsSoWhite movement grew in response to the lack of racial diversity among the nominees, and specifically the fact that for the second year in a row, all 20 actresses and actors nominated in the lead and supporting roles were white.

I refuse to watch the Oscars or any other awards show until they start reflecting the makeup of our country.

In 2017, some notable progress was made, not only in terms of nominations — six black actors were in the running for a statue — but in terms of wins. Last night, Moonlight, a film about a young queer black man, won best picture. Mahershala Ali, a black actor, became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. And Viola Davis won best supporting actress award for her role in Fences.

It marked the most victories for black performers in the history of the ceremony, and we absolutely should celebrate this milestone. But as we do so, we must also acknowledge that much more diversity is needed.

One in five adults in the United States have some type of disability, and people with disabilities make up a large and diverse segment of our society. Notably, disability is more prevalent among women (25%) and non-Hispanic black adults (29%).

One in five adults in the United States have some type of disability.

And yet, though we exist in large numbers and make many important contributions to our communities, people with disabilities continue to be excluded from the Oscars. This year, zero actresses or actors with a known disability were nominated for an Oscar. And in fact, there have only been three times in the history of the Oscars that a person with a disability has won an award.

First, in 1947, Harold Russell, a disabled veteran whose hands were amputated, won an Oscar for best supporting actor for the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. Forty years later, in 1987, Marlee Matlin, a Deaf actress, was awarded the lead actress Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God. Finally, in 1999, Dan Keplinger, an artist with cerebral palsy, won Best Short Subject Documentary for King Gimp. Keplinger wrote and starred in the documentary. Tellingly, Keplinger was unable to accept the award because the stage was not wheelchair accessible.

Marlee Matlin accepts her Oscar (credit: Oscars.org)

That is it. In 89 years, only three disabled actresses or actors have won this prestigious award.

Of course, throughout the years, there have been many Oscars awarded for films that focused on characters with disabilities, like Million Dollar Baby, Rain Man, and Forrest Gump.

This year was no exception: In addition to Life, Animated, a nominated documentary that told the story of an autistic man, a handful of high-profile non-documentaries featured characters with disabilities. Manchester by the Sea, which won two Oscars, includes mental health and substance abuse in the storyline. Fences, which received praise for its racial diversity, involves a lead character with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Moonlight includes substance abuse in the storyline. And Arrival involves a child with cancer.

But while it’s heartening to see storylines that include characters like me receiving so many accolades, it is very troubling to see these characters played by actresses and actors with no known disabilities.

Moreover, though disability themes were present in four of the non-documentary films nominated for Oscars, that is not nearly enough. According to a recent report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, barely 2.4% of all speaking or named characters in films between 2007 and 2015 were depicted with a disability. More troubling still, nearly all were white.

This portrayal is simply not in line with the U.S. population.

Barely 2.4% of all speaking or named characters in films between 2007 and 2015 were depicted with a disability.

Disability representation in television is equally problematic. The Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television recently found that 95% of characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actresses and actors on television. And according to a 2016 report by GLAAD, less than 2% of television characters (15) have disabilities.

To be fair, television has done an increasingly better job of portraying disability and casting disabled actresses and actors. Switched at Birth, which recently ended, involved a daughter who was Deaf, played by Katie Leclerc, an actress who is hard of hearing. Marlee Matlin also had a recurring role on the show. In fact, in 2013, nearly an entire episode of the show featured only American Sign Language (ASL).

The cast of ‘Switched at Birth,’ including actress Katie Leclerc, second from left (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2016, ABC began airing its new hit show, Speechless, which focuses on a family with a son, J.J., who has cerebral palsy. J.J. is a wheelchair user and uses a communication board, pointing to words that his aide then voices (hopefully, in the future, the character will utilize an electronic communication device, which would speak what he types, to increase his independence). J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy.

A&E’s Born this Way is a reality television show featuring adults with Down syndrome. It shows the television stars at home, work, and in their communities, and highlights their romantic relationships. Like all reality television, it is full of drama and a hit among viewers (including me).

This increase in representation is promising. But still, with the exception of Born this Way, the vast majority of these performers are white, heterosexual, and cis-gendered, which ignores the beautiful diversity of the disability community.

All of this is important because the fact is, film and television play important roles in society and can legitimately shift broader perceptions. The more disability is included, the more it can be normalized.

For far too long, people with disabilities have been portrayed as incompetent, pitiable, and/or completely lacking in agency. The recent film Me Before You, for instance, was heavily criticized for the way it devalued the life of its disabled protagonist, who ultimately killed himself because of his disabilities. This kind of representation lowers expectations of disabled people, helping to foster discrimination and oppression.

The more disability is included, the more it can be normalized.

Moreover, film and television can actually influence policy. In Idaho, for example, the film I am Sam led to the passage of laws aimed at protecting the rights of parents with disabilities. Advocates had been trying to convince the legislature to amend their child welfare laws to prohibit discrimination against disabled parents — but change didn’t happen until legislators took a field trip to the movie theater. This is a powerful example of how much influence Hollywood has. (Of course, had this movie actually included a disabled actor to play the father, it would have been even better.)

As a person with a disability, I grew up watching movies and television shows about nondisabled characters. In fact, I don’t recall seeing a disabled actress or actor until I was in my teens, when I watched Corky, who has Down syndrome, on Life Goes On. Now that I’m in my thirties, I still can only name a handful of films and television shows that I believe accurately portray people with disabilities. We must do better.

We must do better.

At a time of division and uncertainty, it is imperative that Hollywood make a more concerted effort to increase diversity, including people with disabilities.

Until Hollywood gets it right, I will continue to boycott the Oscars and similar awards shows. While I commend the Oscars for improving racial diversity, they have much further to go. I want to see people that look like me. More importantly, I want to see the disability community accurately portrayed — and that includes showing us as the diverse and vibrant community that we very much are.

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