In TV’s Diversity Push, Let’s Not Forget People With Disabilities (Guest Blog)

Former congressman who co-authored the Americans With Disabilities Act praises shows like A&E’s “Born This Way” — and argues that more must be done

Last Updated: August 26, 2016 @ 8:40 AM

As someone who found his vocation as a congressman, I know that our political discourse is only getting worse. While I still have high hopes that things will get better in Washington, Hollywood can offer strong leadership by example on some of the most important issues of our time. Even as political mudslinging descends into hateful slurs, there are leaders in media, movies and television who are creating a more diverse and positive culture.

However, we still have a long way to go in order to make our culture more accepting of different faiths, ethnicities, orientations and abilities. The media we consume should reflect and celebrate our diversity as a nation. That is one of the reasons why the #OscarsSoWhite campaign gained national attention by talking about bias against African-Americans in Hollywood.

That effort has lessons to share, as does the LGBT community. According to GLAAD and its Network Responsibility Index (NRI), which measures positive media portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters on television, things are getting better. Television has started to see an increase in positive depictions of LBGT characters. Other diverse communities can learn from that success.

But while Hollywood has made some positive strides, the entertainment industry still largely fails in many aspects.

For example, the lives and stories of people with disabilities are far too often missing in Hollywood productions. This is despite the fact that there are over 56 million Americans with disabilities and we are the nation’s largest minority group.

When disability does appear, it is often shown through the lens of pity and tokenism. To add insult to injury, many roles that do depict disability are played by actors without disabilities. Think about the film Me Before You, where the main character, who is a quadriplegic, commits suicide. Advocates rightfully protested because the film had an implicit message that devalued the lives of people with disabilities and told people that committing suicide is a courageous act. This message is horrific to the one in five Americans who have disabilities, and to those who love us.

Hollywood’s casting agents and directors must do better and become the leaders we now know they are capable of being. We need more stories that affirm the value of people with disabilities. When I see those types of stories being told, in a positive way, I think of it as leadership. I see positive portrayals of disability in films and television as moving our culture forward. Think about Pixar’s blockbuster Finding Dory, which showed disability as something that makes the main character valuable and informs her approach to the world.  Or think about the potential of ABC’s upcoming series Speechless that will tell the story of a mother of three children, one of whom happens to have a disability and will be played by an actor who has cerebral palsy.

This year’s Emmy Awards highlight the progress that Hollywood has made. For the first time ever, a series with a cast made up of people with disabilities has been nominated for an Emmy. Indeed, the A&E show Born This Way (pictured) has received three nominations — a true milestone in diversity and inclusion. The show follows seven young adults with Down syndrome, each with his or her own distinct personality and challenges.

I urge Hollywood to recognize the significance of the show’s success. Born This Way, while being true to showing the challenges of having a disability, is dedicated to dissolving the stigmas surrounding disability, as cast member Megan Bomgaars’ message “Don’t Limit Me” epitomizes. Born This Way was created to show audiences that people with Down syndrome have the same hopes, dreams and dramas as everyone else.

The cast also includes members of multiple minorities: John, who is an African American man; Elena, who is a woman of Japanese descent; and Christina, who is Hispanic. This show comes at a necessary time, as the vitriol against immigrants, religious minorities and African-Americans grows. By portraying these people for who they are — members of multiple minority groups who are all genuinely friends — it shows Americans that despite our differences, we are all to be valued.

Our popular media should reflect the range of our diversity as a nation – but also recognize that more must be done.

Tony Coelho represented California's 15th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1987, served as the House Majority Whip and co-authored the Americans With Disabilities Act. A person who has experienced epilepsy all his life, Coelho is a disability rights champion and advocate and a member of the board of RespectAbility.