Octavia Spencer calls for authentic onscreen representation of people with disabilities

"Casting able-bodied actors in roles for characters with disabilities is offensive, unjust and deprives an entire community of people from opportunities,” Spencer said.
Octavia Spencer appears on the Today show on May 21, 2018.
Octavia Spencer appears on NBC's "TODAY" show on May 21, 2018.Nathan Congleton/TODAY / NBC

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By Gwen Aviles

Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer is calling for increased and more authentic onscreen representation of people with disabilities.

"Nothing can replace lived experience and authentic representation," Spencer said in a recent video for the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability advocacy organization. "That's why it's imperative that we cast the appropriate actor for the appropriate role, and that means people with disabilities as well."

"Casting able-bodied actors in roles for characters with disabilities is offensive, unjust and deprives an entire community of people from opportunities,” Spencer continued.

Spencer's PSA coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications and in state and local government services. The "Hidden Figures" actress concluded the PSA by challenging Hollywood to increase the casting of people with disabilities.

"There's no reason we should continue to repeat the same mistakes of the past," Spencer said.

Though the ADA has been integral in increasing opportunity for the 61 million people with some form of disability across the U.S., many industries, including Hollywood, still lag behind when it comes to providing people with disabilities with the same access as those without.

Less than 3 percent of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies of 2016 had disabilities, according to a report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And a 2018 report from the Ruderman Foundation shows that disability representation on television is equally dismal as that on film, as only 12 percent of all characters with disabilities on TV during that season were played by actors with disabilities.

Moreover, when people with disabilities are included in film and television, they are often reduced to objects of pity and/or inspiration.

"If we aren’t allowing disabled actors to play disabled people, then what does society trust us to do?," wrote culture writer Esme Mazzeo for Rooted for Rights, a digital platform that seeks to challenge misleading narratives about disability. "Representation isn’t enough anymore. We need to start demanding authentic representation in all forms of entertainment."

Spencer has spoken about her experiences with dyslexia and how she learned she was more of an auditory versus a visual learner in past interviews.

“I was a dyslexic child and am a dyslexic adult; that doesn’t really mean that you’re not intelligent. It just means that your brain functions differently,” Spencer told WENN. “I was actually tested for the gifted program in my school because I was more auditorially inclined than visually.”

In an open letter last December, the Ruderman Family Foundation urged studio and network executives to audition and cast actors with disabilities. Among those who've signed the letter were George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix, Bryan Cranston, Eva Longoria and Bobby Farrelly.

“As an Oscar-winning actor, Octavia Spencer embodies Hollywood’s vast potential to serve as a powerful catalyst for positive social change if studio, production, and network executives commit to more inclusive and authentic representation,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, wrote in a statement. “We are gratified that Ms. Spencer has joined our call and we look forward to have other actors and actresses, filmmakers, producers and studios to continue to create unprecedented momentum that brings about greater casting of people with disabilities.”

CBS recently signed a pledge created by the Ruderman Family Foundation, agreeing to audition actors with disabilities for every forthcoming production, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The BBC also pledged to advance disability representation both onscreen and behind the scenes. The network has announced a series of programs featuring performers with disabilities and has committed to increasing the number of disabled people in its workforce to 12 percent from 10.4 percent by 2022, per BBC News.