Manitoba·Opinion

People with disabilities remain unseen, unheard in mainstream media, says advocate

"Often, the entertainment industry is oblivious to disabled people on the cultural continuum," says Nancy Hansen, director of the University of Manitoba's disability studies interdisciplinary master's program. "Our absence is largely unquestioned."

'If representation matters, then why are we (disabled people) invisible in the media?' says Nancy Hansen

Troy Kotsur accepts the award for actor in a supporting role award for his performance in CODA during the 94th Annual Academy Awards on April 28, 2022. CODA is a rare example of mainstream media incorporating people with disability, says Nancy Hansen. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Nancy Hansen, director of the University of Manitoba's interdisciplinary master's program in disability studies. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I am writing with an observation: if representation matters then why are we (disabled people) invisible in the media? 

Case in point: I have just finished reading the Hollywood Diversity Report 2022 from the UCLA college of social sciences. I find it concerning that the world's largest minority group — disabled people — (more than one billion people worldwide) is not included or mentioned in the report.

When I contacted the lead author of the report about this absence, they responded that they didn't have access to reliable data to measure that.

Apparently, diversity is highly selective. Unfortunately, it is indicative of just how invisible disabled people are in Hollywood. 

Often, the entertainment industry is oblivious to disabled people on the cultural continuum. Our absence is largely unquestioned. This is deeply troubling.

For some reason, disability is invisible on the BIPOC radar.- Nancy Hansen

Yes,  I know CODA, an Oscar-winning film depicting the experiences of a hearing child in a deaf family, had a majority deaf cast. The ABC sitcom Speechless was a rare example of a disabled actor (Micah Fowler) in a lead television role. The United Kingdom's Channel 4 has The Last Leg, a current-affairs talk show with disabled presenters.

But it is a long-established practice in the entertainment industry for non-disabled actors to "crip up" (play disabled characters). There is no shortage of disabled actors. However, opportunities for parts are limited.

As Judy Heumann, an international disability rights advocate, points out in her 2019 Ford Foundation report, "In order for the disability community to make sure that it is not forgotten and left behind (yet again) as media evolves and changes, it is imperative to have investments be made to support the disability community's efforts to stake a claim in this arena." 

Equity, diversity and inclusion 'is not a simple turn of phrase,' says Nancy Hansen. (Submitted by Nancy Hansen)

For some reason, disability is invisible on the BIPOC radar.

Diversity is important for everyone. No one has a singular identity. Yet, most BIPOC-related media campaigns make no mention of disability. Nor is there anyone pictured with a visible disability. 

I fail to understand why disability is continually left off the EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) continuum and regularly subjected to secondary, segregated programs. Disability is not an add-on or afterthought. We do not live in a parallel universe. Therefore, disabled people should be explicitly included in all EDI efforts. 

When something is difficult, avoidance is never the best course of action. At the very least, attention must be drawn to the world's largest minority group, the extent of invisibility and how this a problem. 

Failing to address disability issues in any form or context is not acceptable.

There is a long road ahead, but that does not mean it's not worth taking.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Hansen is a professor and director of the University of Manitoba's interdisciplinary master's program in disability studies. She is the co-author of The Routledge History of Disability.

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