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Study shows disability representation onscreen is increasing but still falls short

Troy Kotsur won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in “CODA,” during the 94th Academy Awards in March.  (Noel West/The New York Times)
Troy Kotsur won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in “CODA,” during the 94th Academy Awards in March. (Noel West/The New York Times)
By Sarah Bahr The New York Times

“CODA,” a film about the hearing child of deaf parents, won this year’s Academy Award for best picture, and one of its stars, Troy Kotsur, became the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar when he took home the award for best supporting actor. Lauren Ridloff became the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first deaf superhero in “Eternals.” The Hulu mystery-comedy series “Only Murders in the Building” won acclaim for an almost entirely silent episode that highlighted the perspective of a deaf character (played by James Caverly).

Even with these prominent examples of disability representation onscreen, relative to the approximately 26% of adults in the United States who have a physical or psychological disability, representation continued to lag behind, a new study released Tuesday by Nielsen found. The report, whose release was timed to the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, analyzed the representation of disabled characters in film and on TV shows released from 1918 to 2022.

The titles came from a Nielsen database that included about 164,000 films and TV shows that premiered over the past century. Of those, about 4.2%, or 6,895 titles, were tagged as having significant disability themes or content.

Disability inclusion was highest, the study found, in 2019, when 518 productions with disability themes were released.

Across the board in this year’s report, films fared better than television. Of the 6,895 titles that featured significant disability themes or content, about 59% (4,066) were feature films, and 18% (1,209) were regular series. (The remaining depictions were in other categories like short films, limited series, TV movies or specials.)

Those numbers represent a slight shift toward television from last year, when a Nielsen report showed that 64% of depictions of disabled characters were in feature films, and 16% were in regular television series.

A survey of more than 2,000 smartphone users on disability representation in media conducted in the first quarter of 2022 also found that people with disabilities were much more likely to take issue with portrayals of disabled characters. Viewers with disabilities were 34% more likely to say there was not enough representation of their identity group in media, and they were 52% more likely than those who did not identify as having a disability to characterize a TV portrayal of their identity group as inaccurate.

Lauren Appelbaum, a vice president at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization that participated in the Nielsen study last year, told The New York Times then that though the number of disabled characters continued to increase, approximately 95% of those roles were still portrayed by actors who did not have disabilities.

But there have also been positive representations, as on the HBO series “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which features a character who uses a wheelchair (played by Lauren Spencer, known as Lolo), a confident student who attends the show’s iconic nude party. Alaqua Cox also won acclaim for her performance as Maya Lopez/Echo, a deaf Cheyenne woman who has the ability to imitate other people’s movements, in the Disney+ series “Hawkeye.”

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