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EXPAND YOUR AUDIENCE - How To Reach, Connect With and Support People with Disabilities

Posted By Lauren Appelbaum, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Some of the most talented people in history—from Beethoven (deaf) and Harriet Tubman (epilepsy) to Selena Gomez (lupus), Richard Branson (dyslexic) and Steven Hawking (ALS)—achieved great success while living with a disability. Despite the fact that today 56 million Americans have a disability, few industries are fully reaching out to this market. The film and TV industry has a unique opportunity to change that narrative. Here are a few tips, ideas and facts to help you get started, courtesy of a proactive organization called RespectAbility, the nonprofit that produced The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit.


Disabilities are rarely seen in movies or television shows.

By simply showing more characters with disabilities, you can help bring disability out of the closet and into the open. This will help people with disabilities and those who love them feel more accepted, valued, respected and appreciated.


Disability cuts across every demographic, gender, age, race and sexual orientation.

Too often, people with disabilities are represented by white actors. Producers can help ensure that people of color also are included. The show NCIS: New Orleans features a character in a wheelchair, portrayed by Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an African American actor who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and uses a wheelchair off screen. This is an important representation for a large portion of the viewing audience, as people with disabilities make up the third-largest market, per Nielsen. Recently Ali Stroker made history as the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony award. Stroker also identifies as LGBTQ. Additionally, producers should think about the diversity of disabilities. That includes those who are deaf or blind, have a cognitive disability such as Down syndrome, or an invisible disability such as dyslexia or depression.


Portray characters with disabilities as successful members of the community.

Like people in the LBGTQ community, people with disabilities should be able to be “out” in the open and accepted as equals. The reality show Born This Way features seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they move toward full independence and deal with issues around employment, independent living, education and romance. By promoting success stories of people with disabilities, Born This Way helps to change negative perceptions. The show has been well received, winning three Emmy Awards. In scripted television, Speechless is a sitcom centered on a family that happens to include a son with cerebral palsy. The fact that the character J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy, is extremely important. Actors without disabilities play more than 95% of characters with disabilities on television.


Allow characters with disabilities to showcase their skills in a variety of roles.

Why not show doctors and teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who use a wheelchair or a prosthesis? Show a store clerk, hospital aid, or food service worker who has Down syndrome or a hero who is dyslexic or blind and uses speech-to-text to type and audio text-to-read. Today people with disabilities are shown either as X-Men with strange super skills or as less productive members of society. But most people with disabilities are neither. What they do have, however, is natural and refined abilities to innovate, as they must constantly find work-arounds to succeed in life.


TOP: Micah Fowler and Diego Luna attend the premiere of
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
BOTTOM: The cast of
Born This Way

Think about the language that you use.

Avoid terms like “wheelchair-bound” and “suffers from.” The National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) provides the industry’s only disability language style guide. The guide is intended for journalists, communication professionals and members of the general public who are seeking the appropriate and accurate language to use when writing or talking about people living with disabilities. The guide covers general terms and words on physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental and cognitive disabilities, and seizure disorders. It’s available to view at


Use your shows and movies to inspire parents of children with disabilities to take full advantage of the opportunities that early intervention can bring.

Being a successful parent of any child is hard work. Parenting a child with disabilities can be even harder, and there is a clock ticking. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven that children’s brains are “neuroplastic,” especially in the first six years of life. This means that with proper, early intervention, children’s brains can literally be rewired. The film Finding Dory presents a realistic portrayal of what it is like to parent a child with disabilities. The first scene shows Dory’s parents teaching her how to interact with other children in the aquarium through role-playing. Throughout the film, the scaffolding they built for Dory as a child pays off, enabling her to find them again. Such modeling in future TV shows and films can be transformative for children and parents alike. You can inspire parents, teachers and other caregivers to help children build skills and resiliency that lead to success.


Reach out to experts.

As a member of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which represents more than 100 national disability organizations, RespectAbility can set you up with experts on a wide variety of disabilities. They are ready to be your partner in ensuring accurate coverage and can help you prepare tool kits and teaching guides on disability-related topics that connect to your shows.


 Daryl "Chill" Mitchell and Anthony Anderson at the 41st NAACP Image Awards

Ensure that people with a variety of disabilities have access to your products.

Make your website fully accessible by having both captions and audio descriptions available for those who have either visual or auditory disabilities. These people are consumers of content and watch TV and film. For your website, add tags, captions, a site index, and alt text to images. Ensure that all videos have captions and check their accuracy. Video hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo have free tools that allow users to add automated subtitles to their clips—but review these carefully for reliability. Making a transcript of the video available online is also an incredibly helpful resource for users with auditory disabilities, like deafness or those who are hard of hearing. Many of these things are also valuable for your search engine optimization (SEO), increasing your reach and readership.


Create a plan to hire and retain employees with disabilities.

Check out places like Exceptional Minds, which trains students with autism in creating graphics for films and TV shows. The nonprofit USBLN, the National Organization on Disability, and are also great resources. Create an employee resource group for employees with disabilities. How many employees with disabilities or people who have family members with disabilities does your company employ? Do they feel comfortable bringing their authentic 360-degree selves to work? Do they have a support system with other members of the team? Ensure that people who identify as a woman, African American or LGBTQ and also have a disability are welcomed into every aspect of your organization. People who live with multiple minority status should be able to feel comfortable and welcome in all groups.


For more information see The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit.

Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President of Communications of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

Lead image: Ali Stroker makes history, winning Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role in Oklahoma.

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