Developmental Disabilities in Mainstream Media

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — March 11, 2021 — 4 min read
More than six million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). According to a report by the Geena Davis Institute, eight percent of family films had a lead character with a disability in 2019. This is a “historic high” for audiences across the country.

Past representation of those with disabilities

Until recently, those with disabilities were often invisible in the mainstream media. People with IDD rarely saw themselves in TV shows, on news outlets, or in movies. And if there was an on-screen character who had a disability, they were likely played by an able-bodied actor—and portrayed negatively.

The future of disability representation in media

These three trailblazers are not the only people with disabilities making an impact. However, their work is making it easier for others with disabilities to break through.

Zach Anner, comedian, actor, and writer

With over a quarter million YouTube subscribers, Zach Anner is making a name for himself. On his YouTube channel, he jokes about the joys and challenges of his life. He also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

In 2011, Anner earned his own TV show, Rollin’ with Zach. In the show, he visits cities and tries to "conquer his ‘top five’ list of things to do." He doesn't shy away from activities that may be difficult for someone who uses a wheelchair.

Now he appears on several YouTube channels, including his own, Zach Anner. He regularly guest hosts SoulPancake, where almost four million subscribers tune in. [Photo credit: Wikipedia]

Madeline Stuart, model, dancer, and advocate

Only 24 years old, Madeline Stuart has walked runways at New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, and dozens of other fashion events across the world. She also has Down syndrome.

Stuart started her journey to fame by documenting her weight loss progress on social media. Her goal was to become a supermodel and dancer. So, she lost over 40 pounds as millions cheered her on through Instagram. Finally, her story was picked up by global news outlets, and she was recruited by a top modeling agency.

Now Stuart runs an all-abilities dance school called InsideOutside Dance. It allows “dancers of mixed abilities" to "have fun, get fit, and make friends.” Anyone across the world can participate in the school’s online dance classes. [Photo credit: Wikipedia]

Ryan O’Connell, writer, actor, director, and comedian

Ryan O’Connell stars in his own Netflix TV series, Special, based on his 2015 memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. Season one of Special was met with positive reviews and a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. O’Connell also has cerebral palsy.

O’Connell began his career as an independent blogger and writer. In 2016 he started turning his memoir into a TV series for Netflix (while working full time). In 2019, he was awarded the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award for his work with Special. O’Connell, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, was then chosen as the celebrity grand marshal for the Los Angeles Pride Parade.

Last year, O’Connell was featured in The New York Times, where he talked about representation of disabilities in media. He also recently finished writing a novel, Just by Looking at Him, which will come out in 2022. Right now, he’s working on season two of Special, though COVID-19 restrictions have made it more difficult. [Photo credit: IMDb​]
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How we can all be more inclusive

There are several things we can do to make our media more inclusive.

Watch inclusive TV shows and movies

Networks and production companies will pay for movies they know people want to see. To decide what will be successful, they look at historical data—who watches what? If more people watch shows and movies with lead actors who have disabilities, companies will create more like them.

Get loud on social media

Follow influencers and rising stars who advocate for the disabled community. Share content put out by those with disabilities. Use social media to talk about why representation matters.

Change the conversation

At work, at home, and with friends, bring the disabled community into discussions about equality. Too often, those with disabilities are forgotten in conversations about race, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues.

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