Best Practices for Entertainment Media
GADIM’s first recommendation to the entertainment media in a country is to read Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):
1. States Parties undertake to adopt immediate, effective and appropriate measures:
a) To raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding persons with disabilities, and to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities;
b) To combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on sex and age, in all areas of life;
c) To promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.
2. Measures to this end include:
a) Initiating and maintaining effective public awareness campaigns designed:
i. To nurture receptiveness to the rights of persons with disabilities;
ii. To promote positive perceptions and greater social awareness towards persons with disabilities;
iii. To promote recognition of the skills, merits and abilities of persons with disabilities, and of their contributions to the workplace and the labour market;
b) Fostering at all levels of the education system, including in all children from an early age, an attitude of respect for the rights of persons with disabilities;
c) Encouraging all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention;
d) Promoting awareness-training programmes regarding persons with disabilities and the rights of persons with disabilities.
GADIM understands the societal and business constraints that a country’s entertainment media faces, but there are ways for film, television, and streaming content producers to improve representation and inclusion of persons with disabilities.
In the creation of entertainment media content about disability, we recommend hiring people with disabilities at all levels of the production process. GADIM can recommend consultants with disabilities who can be paid to read scripts, film treatments, adaptations, etc. GADIM believes all consultants should be paid for their work.
GADIM’s partner, FilmDis, which authored a study of TV representation of disability, says “studios must begin to hire disabled screenwriters, directors, and other crew members, as well as consultants, to help the television industry craft narratives that empower rather than stigmatize the disability community.”
GADIM recommends authentic casting at all times, meaning disabled actors should be hired to portray disabled characters. In the event that a disabled actor cannot be hired, the production should have a consultant with a disability on set to assist in the accurate representation of a disabled character. GADIM can recommend consultants who can work with a production on-set or virtually.
Content about Disability
Film, television, and streaming content should not misrepresent the experiences of disabled people and how they interact with the world. Productions should avoid perpetuating myths and negative stereotypes about disability. By employing disabled people as script consultants (and doing what they recommend), productions can avoid many negative stereotypes.
Entertainment media content should not objectify disabled people as a way to make audiences feel pity or inspiration. The content should present disabled characters as multi-dimensional, not as a medical diagnosis. Disabled characters should not be the focus to evoke tragedy or even worse, to show a character’s wish for death because of a disability.
The content should be careful with storylines that involve “a cure,” either as unrealistic or as tragic. For example, some storylines “cure” disabilities instead of showing how actual disabled people live with impairment through empowering equipment or technology. In other instances, a program plot has a character acquire a disability only to become bitter and suicidal. Finally, disability should not be associated with evil in a storyline. The majority of disabled people live regular, happy lives and do not become maniacal murderers because of a disability.
Ableism in the Portrayal of Disability
Because nondisabled people control the entertainment media, the majority of content reflects the beliefs of nondisabled people about disability. Every aspect of the media content contributes to how society perceives disability. Media content about disability affects attitudes and behaviors toward disabled people in a society.
Poor choices in presenting disability in the entertainment media can lead to more ableism in society. Many films based on the real life of a disabled person don’t include the disability perspective (or hire a disabled actor). Disabled actor Michael Patrick Thornton says, “We look to stories to remind us of our shared virtues, of our commonalities across all cultures; in short: what makes us human. By so infrequently folding disability into the human tapestry, people and their stories are being actively erased. That’s not okay. In fact, one could make the argument that it’s immoral.”
The entertainment media should seek to reflect the diversity across individual experiences of disability and tell the stories of people with physical, sensory, cognitive or intellectual disabilities. The stories of people whose disabilities affect their appearance should be included, as well as those people whose disabilities are hidden or are not apparent.
The media should understand that disability intersects with other factors. People of all genders/sexuality, race/ethnicity, ages, and in all geographic locations experience disability. Too often the entertainment media features stories about cisgender white males with physical disabilities or cisgender while males with autism.
Resources for the Entertainment Media
1IN4, “10 Ways To Start” supporting the increase in employment and authentic representation of disabled people in Hollywood
BFI Disability Screen Advisory Group, “Disabled Filmmakers need you to press reset” [Project Reset campaign]
Disabilities in Media. Representing Disabilities and People with Disabilities in Films. A working toolkit for filmmakers and industry stakeholders.
Disability Arts Online [disabled person-led British organization to advance disability arts and culture]
Disability Media Alliance Project [brings together the disability community and the U.S. media industry]
Disabled Artists Networking Community (DANC) [a British space to network, create projects/partnerships]
Easterseals Disability Film Challenge [Annual competition in U.S.]
GLAAD, “Where We Are on TV” [Annual report on LGBTQ and disability representation on U.S. television]
Jane Sancho, Disabling Prejudice, Attitudes toward disability and its portrayal on television [PDF – BBC report, 2003]
Sins Invalid [a disability justice performance project in the U.S.]
SoulStir Creative, “ABLE: A Series” [8-episode video series about disability in TV, film, and theatre in the U.S.]
Gail Williamson [Agent for disabled actors, performers, models in Los Angeles]
Alice Wong, Disability Visibility Projects [Podcast episodes featuring disabled people speaking about a myriad of topics]