The 20% of U.S. Population Highly Unlikely to Get Acting Roles

Representation of disability in the media is woefully low; less than 1% of the regular characters appearing on network television are disabled, and even fewer of those are actually played by disabled people. Cable is doing a little better, while film seems primarily interested in using disability as Oscar-bait.

Disability advocates are lobbying to change this, arguing that with an estimated 20% of the population living with disabilities, increased representation is key. More disabled characters provide more opportunities for a diversity of depictions and experiences, and for reaching nondisabled members of the public with information about disability.

Hand in hand with that go concerns about accuracy. Media and pop culture representations of disability are often poor reflections of what it’s actually like to be disabled, and critics are often ignored when speaking out about specific issues they identify in film and television. Advocates interested in increased representation also want to see good representation, and they’re fighting for more use of disabled consultants to increase accuracy and sensitivity.

Likewise, many advocates are concerned with the use of cripface, the hiring of nondisabled actors in disabled roles. In addition to increasing representation and accuracy, it’s critical to improve opportunities for disabled actors, like RJ Mitte (above) in Breaking Bad. Disabled actors have intimate experience with the reality of being disabled and can add more authenticity to their depictions as well as working with writers and producers to improve the representation of disability in film and television.

Nondisabled attitudes about disability are very much informed by exposure through pop culture, making the subject a critical issue. Ian Buckwalter recently opined at The Atlantic that “Feel-Good Films About Disability Need to Also Make You Feel Bad,” sparking irritated responses from disability advocates. The feel-good disability film is a troubled media trope as it is, but the suggestion that such films need to engage in pity porn to engage the viewer (and win an Oscar) is revolting. And it’s a revealing assumption about Buckwalter’s attitudes; he assumes that no disabled filmgoers exist, and thus that there’s no need for a media narrative about disability that differs from unrelenting tragedy.

He’s not alone in his assumptions, and the only way to change that is to expand the depiction of disability in order to change the way people think as they engage not just with media and pop culture, but disabled people in society. Groups like I AM PWD work to improve representation, accuracy and access in media and pop culture with the goal of shifting social attitudes about disability, working with disabled performers, activists, and allies interested in the cause.

Some traction is starting to develop, but progress is slow. Down syndrome has been showing up more frequently in film and television, for example, though disabled critics have rightly noted that Down syndrome is a disability that is extremely difficult to fake, meaning that creators don’t necessarily deserve kudos for casting actors with the condition in these roles. What would be more remarkable is a conscious decision to turn to disabled talent first for all disabled roles; as it is, the list of disabled actors in disabled roles is vanishingly low.

Will we see a shift in how disability is handled in pop culture, and, by extension, in society at large? A lot of disability advocates strongly hope so, looking forward to a day when disability is simply part of a character’s identity, rather than the sole defining aspect, and when disabled actors tread the boards instead of nondisabled people playing at cripface.

Related Stories:

Controversy Over Ari Ne’eman & the National Council on Disability

5 Facts Most People Don’t Know About Learning Disabilities

Netflix Sued For Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act

Photo Credit: Pop Culture Geek


Jennifer U.
Jennifer A5 years ago

Maybe if we allowed more disabled people to play roles on screen we would feel less inclined to stare at them and either judge them or feel pity for them.

Christopher M.
Christopher M.5 years ago

Don't they have a requirement that actors who portray a disabled person now actually have that disability? Me thinking Life Goes On.... Corky

Nancy W.
Nancy Wang5 years ago

Does the 20% include all minorities as well? Don't see many Asians either playing characters or seeing roles made for Asian Americans.

Really, what's new? People all over the world used to think all Americans were blonde and blue-eyed. Now they think they're black or white. The rest of us, no matter how long we've been Americans are seen as foreigners. And one reason - we're not represented in the media.

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks for the excellent article.

Ajla C.
Past Member 5 years ago


KATE WAGNER5 years ago

I was particularly upset when I found out that the "wheel chair bound Artie" on Glee is actually not wheel chair bound. I am positive there are numerous actors with disabilities compatible with the role. Shame on them!! An initial episode had an actual quadriplegic actor in the roll of one. But it was a once and done character. Perhaps they think they have done their bit with the downs syndrome actors in on going roles which I do applaud. But they should have done the same with "Artie".

Katariina L.
Katariina L5 years ago

Who is calculated in the 20%, it sounds like a lot? If it includes less visible things such as dyslexia or OCD, I assume they're are already likely to be represented among H'wood actors? Or if it's largely people with serious health problems like e.g. Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or MS, their health often may prevent them enduring the hectic schedule of filming for TV or film. And often they're older, while H'wood roles normally go to younger options (whether that's good is another topic). And some disabilities, like paralysis, muteness or blindness, may prevent those actors from auditioning for many roles.

So, while I totally think that disabled ( gay, older, minority) should be better represented on TV and film to make people realise they're part of the norm too, I think it's not necessarily that straightforward to make it happen.

About Melanie B's request for more representation of sexual abuse, this is a tricky one. Although I have no stats, it seems to me as if there's been much more representation of abuse in fiction in recent years (TV series, movies). If that's increased more, could that backfire, might people become numb or bored of the topic? Because it IS a "topic", it's not a characteristic you're born with like a disability (usually) is, abuse is something that should've been prevented in the first place, and shouldn't be thrown in lightly as a token character backstory, or depicted as something harmless that doesn't affect the victims negatively. But, like I s

Aud Nordby
Aud n5 years ago


Kate R.
Kate R5 years ago

I don't really understand why disabled roles are taken by non-disabled actors, unless the film industry in general sees the disabled as being particularly difficult to work with for some reason. I can understand wanting a famous face to star in your show/movie, but it's also about showcasing new stars & getting the kudos of "discovering" someone who later goes on to be famous, & I see absolutely no reason why some of this new talent shouldn't reflect the population as a whole. For too long, depictions on screen have focussed on the young & unrealistically beautiful, it's time to get some real people for us to look at.

Or are the directors right, & we the public get turned off by seeing anyone less than perfect? That's quite a sobering thought...

Nicole Weber
Nicole W5 years ago