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The Importance of Representation and Diversity
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The Importance of Representation and Diversity

It doesn’t take much to notice the lack of diversity and representation within the disability community. And once you do notice it, the trick is to not let it drive you completely crazy. The trick is to find productive ways to combat stereotypes and work towards equal representation.

The United Nations currently estimates that there are over 1 billion people with disabilities living in the world today. That’s nearly 15 percent of the world’s population. Unfortunately, regardless of where a person with disabilities may live, they are likely to be underrepresented. This lack of representation can lead to numerous negative side effects including a trend of those with disabilities being poorer than their fellow citizens.

Perhaps one of the most impactful ways in which to draw awareness to the issue of lacking representation is through the media. Media has a huge impact on the prevailing views and values of modern day society. Often times it can provide the only means by which a person gains information on how folks with disabilities live their lives.

The Status Quo

Although the media may be one of the few ways in which a non-disabled person may interact with a person with disabilities, such representation is often marred by negative stereotypes. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) completed a study that found that news and other media coverage frequently portray those with disabilities in two lights: “victim” or “supercrip.” One story typically seeks viewer sympathy while the other provides an uplifting story of “overcoming” disability.

Neither of these manage to accurately capture the regular life of a person living with disabilities. Rather, they typically build upon lingering stereotypes that suggest living with a disability should only be seen with pity or charity. Perhaps the most significant achievement CAB noted in the media was substantial coverage of athletes in the Paralympic Games; however, it also noted that many covered participants are portrayed as the ultimate “triumph-over-adversity” story.

Another study also found an extreme lack of disabled participation in media entertainment. Only 2.1 percent of regular characters on broadcast TV had one or more disabilities. It also found that only a handful of roles are filled by actors with disabilities, even when the roles are meant to portray characters with disabilities. Furthermore, there is a severe lack of employment within television media.

Changing Coverage

Although 2.1 percent is a substantial under-representation of people with disabilities in the media, the statistic is higher than it has been in the past. For example, in the 2010 report representation was hovering around 1 percent. It certainly isn’t the vast improvement one would hope to see in nearly 8 years, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Recent films and TV shows that include actors and actresses with disabilities include “A Quiet Place,” “Speechless,” “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” and “Breaking Bad.” The disabilities represented range from deafness to cerebral palsy to cleidocranial dysplasia. This wide array of differing disabilities offers a ray of hope for substantial change in Hollywood over the coming years.

Moving forward, it is critical to continue to push for greater representation within the media. Greater representation can include, but is not limited to, a greater number of disabilities represented in broadcast television, more actors and actresses with disabilities filling a variety of roles, and greater hiring of disabled persons for production-based positions. In addition to improving representation, it is equally important to alter the portrayal of folks with disabilities in the news media to a story more descriptive of regular life.

Diversity Benefits

Improving representation and increasing inclusion can provide a number of documented benefits to everyone in the community. A number of big businesses have begun to recognize the importance of diversity in the workplace as a means of boosting productivity, creativity, and overall employee happiness. In fact, the vast majority of employers indicate that increasing diversity has also improved employee performance, raised brand reputation, and bolstered collaborative approaches, among other things.

Nursing is one such example of a career that is embracing diversity and cultural awareness. Nurses are required to follow a code of nursing ethics that encourages them to work within a realm of sensitivity and inclusiveness towards all human differences. Increasing diversity and equal representation is enabling nurses to more thoroughly and adeptly account for the code in their day to day work patterns.  

There are a number of opportunities for folks with disabilities that are looking to gain skills that will enable them to compete for positions in the workforce. For instance, the nonprofit Ability Beyond recently received a $50,000 grant to help expand its work promoting fair hiring practices and career development for people with disabilities. The goals of the nonprofit are to help develop skills in their clients and work with them to navigate through the job hiring process.

Fair representation in the media is a critical component to changing the perception of the lives of those living with disabilities. Currently, media representation is typically focused on negative stereotypes that don’t accurately represent real life for most people and there is severe under-representation in televised broadcasting. Although there have been some improvements, many more are needed, especially as a diverse workplace has substantial impacts for everyone.

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  1. suzandannis
    The advancement towards inclusivity has been fast and articulated, particularly energized by the coming of web-based media. We now all have a definitive control; the capacity to make our substance and channel the media we expend. Thus we have discovered networks and our voices.
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