Let's Celebrate a Big Week for Disability Representation!

subscribe to our newsletter!This week has been full of advancements in disability media representation that we’re excited to spotlight, from Oscar nominees and awards show accessibility to new disability reporting guidance from the Associated Press. Let’s dive into these important moments!

A Historic Academy Awards

  • First, some disappointing context to drive home the significance of this year’s Oscars: In 2020, a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism examined the 100 top-grossing films of 2019, and found that only 2.3% of speaking characters were depicted as having a disability or were played by an actor with disabilities. Statistics like these are what motivate calls for change from advocates in the industry.
  • This year’s ceremony finally provided some of the disability representation the movie industry so often lacks:
    • Nominated for Best Picture, Sound of Metal tells the story of a drummer experiencing hearing loss. Riz Ahmed learned American Sign Language to play the main character in the film, for which he was nominated for Best Actor. Paul Raci, Ahmed’s co-star, is a child of Deaf adults (CODA) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and numerous members of the ensemble are Deaf actors.
    • Nominated for Best Documentary, Crip Camp tells the story of Camp Jened, a 1970s summer camp for children and teens with disabilities that gave rise to the disability rights movement in America. (Be sure to read about our conversation with activist and Crip Camp star Judy Heumann!)
    • Nominated for Best Short, Feeling Through is the first film to cast a Deafblind actor, Robert Tarango, in a lead role.
  • The ceremony itself improved accessibility, too, with this year’s stage having a ramp for the first time in history.
  • Of course, the fight for accessibility and representation in media continues, with many folks pointing out how the awards show could have done much better. For example, when Oscar-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin used American Sign Language while presenting an award, the cameras cut away from her before she’d finished her speech, which prevented her use of ASL from actually improving accessibility. 

A New Style Guide for Reporting on Disability

As we know, language around disability is constantly evolving, but mainstream reporting often does not keep up with the disability community’s wants and needs. This affects how the stories of people with disabilities are told and how their lives are portrayed. This week, the Associated Press revised their Stylebook to change how reporters discuss disability, which will reverberate throughout the journalism field. AP shared some of these changes on Twitter:

  • We advise avoiding writing that implies ableism: the belief that typical abilities – those of people who aren’t disabled – are superior.
  • Some people view their disability as central to their identity, and use identity-first language, such as an autistic woman or an autistic. Others prefer person-first language such as a woman with autism or a woman who has autism. In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.
  • Don't use words that suggest pity, such as afflicted with, battling or suffers from any disability or illness, or that a person overcame her disability. Instead: living with dementia, has cancer, being treated for ADHD, etc.
  • Journalist Wendy Lu, who works at HuffPost, shared the Stylebook along with her reflections on the new language recommendations: “As a disabled journalist, I know what it's like to spend months and months getting a newsroom's leadership on board with avoiding ableist language and telling disability stories that matter. The emotional labor takes a toll. I wish this AP Stylebook guidance had existed back then,” she tweeted.

Have you seen any of the Oscar-nominated films we mentioned? Will the new AP style guidance help shape your own conversations? In your experience, where else do we lack the disability representation that our society needs? 

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