Social Model of Disability
The Social Model of disability is a civil rights based approach to disability developed by disabled people in the 1970s and 1980s. It focuses on challenging and removing barriers which prevent disabled people from living full and active lives These barriers are many and varied and can lead to institutional discrimination, for example:
Buildings are built that disabled people cannot get into.
Information is produced in ways that disabled people cannot use.
Attitudes and stereotypes about disabled people prevent us from having the same opportunities as non-disabled people.
Special services are created that keep us segregated and cut off from everybody else.
What is so exciting about the social model of disability is that it shows how we can achieve equality for disabled people; not by medical interventions, miracles or acts of charity but by:
creating buildings that are accessible.
producing information in accessible formats.
challenging stereotypes and assumptions.
ending segregated services.
disabled people, doing things for themselves.
by disabled people having full civil rights under the law.
The (Mis)representation of Disability on TV
Diversity on television has been a hot topic of media conversation for a while now. Perhaps due to the empowering effect of social media allowing all segments of the population to have their voices heard like never before, calls for the fair on-screen representation of various minority groups are gradually being met with some answers. However, for those of us who do not conform to the able-bodied ideal of what people on TV should look like, progress is proving slow.
There are disabled people of every age, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and political inclination in society. So why is it that the representation of people living with disabilities so often resorts to limited stereotypes, such as the wheelchair-bound boy who wishes he could dance like the other members of his glee club?
Thankfully, some shows have been bringing characters with disabilities more into the limelight.
In Breaking Bad, the son of central character Walter White has cerebral palsy. The show’s portrayal of Walt Junior and his condition is well handled. He is a regular teenager; albeit one who finds learning to drive and shopping for new jeans more challenging than his able-bodied peers. The success of this vibrant character is undoubtedly aided by the fact that the actor R.J. Mitte has CP himself – albeit in a much milder form than his character.
Meanwhile, Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage, is a fan favourite who commands respect through his nuanced characterisation and great depth. Occasional reference to Lannister’s smaller stature is made by himself and other characters, yet he is not defined by his dwarfism. In both of these cases, the actors’ disabilities are real and experienced, meaning that the representation of their conditions is not cliched, or poorly informed.
Yet there is still much work to do in the way of conquering stereotypes, and unfortunately these positive representations are largely an exception to the rule. The pity parties and freak-show formats remain. After all, the fair and appropriate representation of those who identify as disabled is difficult to achieve without more disabled people working in and advising on television productions.
In May of this year, the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) and Creative Skillset issued a workforce survey comprising over 1,100 respondents within television. The survey asked questions to analyse the recruitment, working patterns, training needs, pay, and socio-economic backgrounds of those working in TV.
Disappointingly, the results showed that the proportion of people with disabilities in the creative media workforce has remained static for 10 years at around 5%, against 11% across the wider working population. In other words, the proportion of disabled people working in television is still much lower than in the economy as a whole, and has not improved for a decade.
In response to these figures, the CDN and Creative Skillset are calling for the TV industry to look urgently at the numbers of disabled staff in television, and come together to improve representation levels.
“The TV industry has much work to do to create a truly diverse and representative workforce. The progress that has been made in recent years to encourage more B.A.M.E and women professionals must be extended to people with disabilities.”
Andrew Chowns, CEO of Directors UK
“TV can’t afford to miss out on the talent and skills of disabled people.”
John McVay, Chair of the Creative Diversity Network
In spite of this underrepresentation, many programmes are wasting perfect opportunities to showcase the talents of disabled people. In a notorious example, FOX’s hugely popular musical comedy Glee came under fire in 2009 for enlisting the able-bodied actor-cum-dancer Kevin McHale as the paraplegic high schooler Artie; a casting decision that offended viewers have likened to a white actor painting his face to play a black character.
Why not give the job to a real life wheelchair user? Or better yet, how about hiring disabled actors in roles which haven’t been written specifically for people with disabilities?
One company dedicated to change is VisABLE People; the world’s first talent agency creating mainstream professional opportunities for actors with disabilities. Founded by Louise Dyson in 1994, VisABLE People believes disabled talents are able to play most roles, and not just characters with a specified disability. So far, the agency’s clients have starred in some of the UK’s biggest shows, including Home Fires, Call The Midwife, New Tricks, Life’s Too Short, and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
“For the last 21 years we have tried to create much more than a climate of acceptance – but one of expectation – that cast members in films and TV series will include actors with disabilities; which are totally irrelevant to the character and story lines. I am proud of our trailblazing because for the very first time, a disabled child considering their career prospects knows it is it is very viable to have ‘Professional Actor’ or ‘TV Presenter’ on their employment wish list”.
Louise Dyson, Founder of VisABLE People
On top of needing more disabled actors and presenters on our screens, a more diverse group of people working behind the scenes will lead to a better range of perspectives.
In April of this year, a disabled viewership banded together to have an important impact on what we watch.
The show in question was the Netflix original series Marvel’s Daredevil, which follows a crime-fighting superhero who happens to be blind. Rather carelessly, the streaming company failed to provide audio descriptions for the programme, meaning that audiences with visual impairments were unable to enjoy a show that they had been looking forward to. In a petition labelled ‘#Dare2Describe’, fans protested that “if [Daredevil himself] were a Netflix subscriber, he wouldn’t even be able to enjoy his own show”. Netflix swiftly responded to the pressure by adding audio assistance, allowing blind audiences to enjoy the show along with everybody else (so much so that actor Charlie Cox was honoured with a Helen Keller Achievement Award last month for his portrayal of the blind character).
“It was incredible,” recalls Robert Kingett, a journalist and activist who is blind. “Me and quite a few other ‘blindies’ gathered around and watched the first episode in jubilance.”
In a broader triumph, the campaign has led Netflix to expand its accessibility options by adding audio descriptions to a range of its other titles.
Consulting Daredevil fans living with visual impairments seems like a matter of common sense. Yet remarkably few entertainment companies are taking the initiative to consider the disabled population, and how it may feel underrepresented or excluded by certain production and post-production decisions.
It is our strong belief that television should celebrate our real world diversity by offering fair and equal portrayals of our real world demographics. It is our hope that future programmes will build upon the progress already made, by employing a more heterogeneous workforce, and by listening to and representing members of the public who do not conform to the able-bodied majority.
The Ruderman White Paper - Disability in Television
Did you know that the average American spends more time watching TV than hanging out with friends? But did you also know that’s not such a horrible thing? Television after all is credited with expanding greater social acceptance of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community for example. In other words, all that screen time is having a positive impact on human beings in the real world and is nudging us toward becoming a more inclusive and welcoming society.
But before you go off and celebrate by marathoning your favorite show, consider that this wonderful social effect only comes about if minority characters are actually present in the shows. So for the second round of “did you know”s:
Did you know that people with disabilities make up 20% of our population, but fewer than 1% of TV characters? Did you know that we just conducted a study with famed actor Danny Woodburn, and found that only 5% of those characters with disabilities are played by actual actors with disabilities? Imagine if only 5% of female characters were played by women. Imagine if the next football game you watched had only one football player on the field out of the 22 positions and that the remaining people were acting as football players. That would not only be the least authentic football game ever, but we as a society wouldn’t stand for it.
The fact is that one out of five of you reading this have a disability and that five out of five know someone who has one. We explore the implications of this reality in much more detail in our latest Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television which you can read here. For the Executive Summary, read below.
Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television. What compounds the problem is the fact that even when characters with disabilities are featured on the small screen, they are far too often played by actors without disabilities.
We conducted an investigation into the frequency of actors with disabilities on the top-ten television shows toward the end of the 2015-2016 TV season. We also did the same for the top twenty-one shows that are original content featured on streaming platforms. Finally, we conducted a survey of actors with disabilities to assess their perspectives and personal experiences in the television industry.
In addition to our data collection, Danny Woodburn also lays out his decades of experience in the television business and highlights the problems with our currently accepted definition of “diversity” as well as the systemic hurdles performers with disabilities have to combat in order to be employed in television.
We found that more than 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television. While streaming platforms had a better percentage, they also had a lower overall count of characters with disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.
The overall experience of actors with disabilities as noted in our survey is a negative one. They repeatedly echo the frustrations and struggles against the systemic discrimination they face in the television industry.
This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive casting, through the use of Computer Graphics (CG) to create ability, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing on the disability. We also provide a list of resources where actors with disabilities can be proactively reached.
Read the full paper below:
GLAAD Where we are on
TV Report 2015
The Where We Are on TV report analyzes the overall diversity of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast networks and looks at the number of LGBT characters on cable networks for the 2015-2016 TV season.
For the first time in two years, the percentage of regular characters depicted as living with a disability on broadcast programming has dropped, down to 0.9% from 1.4% reported last year. Between broadcast and cable, there is only one recurring character who is depicted as HIV-positive
Access the full report:
Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015
Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative
USC Anneberg School of Communication and Journalism
Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, & Dr. Katherine Pieper with assistance from Ariana Case & Justin Marsden
Yearly, the Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative examines inequality on screen and behind the camera across the 100 top‐grossing domestic films. To date, we have evaluated 35,205 characters across 800 of the most popular movies from 2007‐2015. Every independent speaking or named character on screen was assessed for gender, race/ethnicity, and LGBT status as well as a variety of demographic, domesticity, and sexualization measures. In 2015, we began assessing the portrayal of character disability as well. Clearly, this is the most comprehensive and rigorous intersectional analysis of independent speaking and named characters in popular motion picture content to date.
Characters with Disabilities. Only 2.4% of all speaking or named characters were shown with a disability. A full 45 of the movies failed to depict one speaking character with a disability. Most of the portrayals appeared in action adventure films (33.3%). Only 2% of all characters with disabilities were shown in animated movies. 61% of the characters were featured with a physical disability, 37.1% with a mental or cognitive disability, and 18.1% with a communicative disability. These designations were based on U.S. Census language and domains. Only 19% of characters with a disability were female and 81% were male. This is a new low for gender inequality in film. Not one LGBT character with a disability was portrayed across the 100 top films of 2015. The report also highlights many other results on gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability in film as well as simple and straightforward solutions to Hollywood’s inclusion crisis.
Read the full report:
Medical Model of Disability
The medical model of disability is a medical model by which illness or disability, the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual's own body), may reduce the individual's quality of life and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.
The medical model tends to believe that curing or at least managing illness or disability mostly or completely revolves around identifying the illness or disability from an in-depth clinical perspective (in the sense of the scientific understanding undertaken by trained health care providers), understanding it and learning to control and/or alter its course. By extension, the medical model also believes that a "compassionate" or just society invests resources in health care and related services in an attempt to cure disabilities medically, to expand functionality and/or improve functioning, and to allow disabled persons a more "normal" life. The medical profession's responsibility and potential in this area is seen as central.
Current attitudes towards disabled people
Scope - 2014
Authors: Hardeep Aiden and Andrea McCarthy
• Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to
• Over a third (36%) of people tend to think of disabled people as not
as productive as everyone else.
• Over four fifths (85%) of the British public believe that disabled people
• A quarter (24%) of disabled people have experienced attitudes or behaviours
where other people expected less of them because of their disability.
• One fifth (21%) of 18 – 34 years old admit that they have actually avoided
talking to a disabled person because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them.
Disabled people and their families tell Scope that negative attitudes affect every area of their lives – in the playground, at work, in shops, on the street. But how can we improve attitudes to disabled people? Much of the discomfort people feel about disability may stem from a lack of understanding. Not enough people know a disabled person – nearly half (43%) of the British public say they do not know anyone who is disabled – and many are concerned that they will do or say the wrong thing when talking to disabled people or about disability. Our research shows that both the general public and disabled people believe that more everyday interactions and greater public education about disability will increase understanding and acceptance of disabled people. We all have a role to play and Scope is playing its part. This year, we’re launching a national campaign to get us all thinking about what we can do to include disabled people more in our lives.
Public attitudes have an impact on the material and non-material aspects of everyone’s living standards, and disabled people in particular. At Scope, we believe that we won’t see structural changes that improve disabled people’s living standards without tackling attitudinal change at the same time.
The findings in this report show that large sections of the population hold negative attitudes towards disabled people and these attitudes are underpinned by a general lack of understanding about disability and disabled people’s needs.
Generally speaking, men are more likely to hold negative attitudes than women, especially among younger age groups. Moreover, attitudes towards people with less ‘visible’ disabilities tend to be much more negative.
There is a lot that can be done to change this, including better education; ensuring there are more opportunities for disabled people and people who aren’t disabled to have positive interactions; and encouraging more positive portrayals of disability and disabled people in the media.