People with disabilities are nearly invisible in TV and film. Industry insiders point to authentic portrayals of disabled characters as models for inclusion.

Coda Marlee Matlin
A still from the film ‘Coda,’ the big winner of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Institute
  • Films like “CODA” and “Sound of Metal” drew praise for portraying disability communities this year.
  • But data shows people with disabilities are still one of the most underrepresented groups on screen.
  • Entertainment industry insiders told Insider how productions can be more inclusive.
  • This article is part of a series called “The Cost of Inequity,” examining the hurdles that marginalized and disenfranchised groups face across a range of sectors.

Disability was in focus during this year’s festival and awards circuits. “CODA,” a dramedy about a hearing teenager from a deaf family, was the darling of the Sundance Film Festival. Oscar nominees included films that portrayed disability communities, like “Sound of Metal,” the documentary “Crip Camp,” and the short film “Feeling Through.”

These films, which featured actors with disabilities and avoided some harmful and overrepresented stereotypes, signaled progress to some who have fought for decades for inclusion in TV and film.

“Progress is more and more films being recognized for their positive and authentic portrayals of deaf people or people with disabilities,” said Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning actress who starred in “Coda,” and identifies as deaf. “That’s not to say that we’ve achieved everything we’ve aimed for, but the voices of inclusion are being heard.”

People with disabilities are still among the most underrepresented groups in Hollywood.

In 2019, just 2.3% of all speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing US films were depicted with a disability, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found. By comparison, 12.6% of the US population lives with a disability, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, which excluded people on active military duty and living in certain institutions from the statistic.

In Hollywood, artists with disabilities face added challenges getting representation, booking gigs, and rising to positions of power, according to 12 people Insider spoke with, including writers, directors, agents, casting directors, and advocates for inclusion in employment.

Even Matlin, a seasoned actress, said she gets turned down for parts because she is deaf. She said she recently lost a recurring role on a TV series because the character wasn’t originally written as deaf and the showrunner didn’t think she could do it without an interpreter character.

Gail Williamson, a talent agent at KMR who represents actors with disabilities, said she’s had to cancel inaccessible auditions for clients, including an audition held on the second floor of a building that wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

Yet films like “Crip Camp” and “Coda,” as well as shows like “The Politician” that cast actors with disabilities, show productions can be more inclusive, those interviewed told Insider.

Crip Camp
A still from the documentary ‘Crip Camp.’ Netflix

The stakes are high. In 2019, the unemployment rate among people living with a disability was 7.3%, twice as high as those without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2020, amid the pandemic, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities climbed to 12.6%.

TV and film can help dispel some myths driving those statistics, like the misconception that people with disabilities aren’t capable of work.

“These are ambitious, hardworking people that are just left out of the mix,” said David Radcliff, whose writing credits include “Crip Camp,” “Waffles and Mochi,” and “The Rookie,” and who has cerebral palsy. “The more we see disabled people on-screen, working jobs, raising families, living productive lives like we’ve seen on ‘Crip Camp’ … that is beneficial to everybody.”

Hollywood is starting to hire more actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities

Some recent momentum in disability inclusion has been around “authentic casting,” or casting actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities.

A 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation of 284 streaming and TV shows found 22% of characters with disabilities were portrayed authentically.

Nondisabled actors playing characters with disabilities have historically been shoo-ins for awards. But disability advocates say the experiences of actors with disabilities can create richer performances in those roles. There are also fewer parts written for characters with disabilities, so opening those parts up to performers with disabilities who might be well suited for them has a real impact.

“It’s literally about economic stability and making a leap from being a freelance artist to, ‘I can support myself and my children that don’t exist and my family,'” said Ryan Haddad, who played the devious Andrew Cashman in Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,” and who has cerebral palsy.

The Politician Netflix
Ryan Haddad (right) as Andrew Cashman in ‘The Politician.’ Giovanni Rufino/Netflix

There’s even more work to be done in opening all roles to talent with disabilities, not just those written for characters with disabilities.

Haddad was drawn to his role in “The Politician” partly because the story arc of the character, who had cerebral palsy, wasn’t driven by disability. The casting director Alexa Fogel said she and Murphy were looking first and foremost for someone with the right sense of humor to play Cashman, who was meant to be clever, sneaky, and funny, and the studio backed them.

It shows progress comes from a combination of agents pitching artists with disabilities for auditions, casting directors broadening their databases, writers and creators thinking more inclusively, and productions and studios hiring people with disabilities at every level, from crew members to studio executives.

There is also a fear in profit-motivated Hollywood that actors or creators with disabilities are more difficult or expensive to work with, which often isn’t the case.

“Producers and networks are still scared, and they’re missing out on this incredible talent that they could be profiting off,” said Marilee Talkington, an actress who has appeared in shows including “See” and identifies as blind.

While there are unique considerations when working with actors with disabilities, that’s true of any production, filmmakers said.

Doug Roland, the writer-director of “Feeling Through,” said he worked with the Helen Keller National Center to cast Robert Tarango, the deaf-blind actor who starred in the film, and make the production accessible while shooting at night. Otherwise the process wasn’t drastically different from other films he’s made.

“The largest lesson I learned is to stop looking at actors and crew with disabilities as this whole other kind of obstacle to be dealt with,” said Roland, who based the story on his own experience with a deaf-blind man. “Look at it as part of the process. … There is so much more gained at every level of the experience.”