NBCU’s Pledge? Spotlight Actors with Disabilities

NBCUniversal has announced they are committed to auditioning people with disabilities, which means great things for the future of mainstream media.

Last week, NBCUniversal announced a commitment to audition people with disabilities in each new film and TV project moving forward. This comes in response to a standing call by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability advocacy organization that secured a similar pledge from CBS in 2019.

Commitment from such an influential entity is a critical step as people with disabilities are one of the most underrepresented minorities when it comes to mainstream media. One in four adults in the U.S. are living with some type of disability, yet the shows and films we watch don’t reflect that. A 2019-2020 report from GLAAD found that only about 1 in 33 characters on scripted broadcast programming are depicted as having a disability. A study by the Ruderman Foundation found that even at that, “22 percent of all characters with disabilities were portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability.”

More opportunities for talented actors with disabilities means more dynamic, multi-dimensional, and vibrant stories. Mickey Rowe, Actor and co-Executive Director of the National Disability Theatre point out that the disability community is extremely diverse. Lived experiences range from those with “developmental disabilities to mobility disabilities to Down syndrome [to mental health conditions], not to mention every intersection with race, gender, and orientation.”

Gail Williamson, an agent with Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates (KMR) whose clients include Lauren Ridloff (Marvel’s The Eternals), Jamie Brewer, (American Horror Story), Cole Sibus (Stumptown), and Gavin McHugh (9-1-1), heads the agency’s Diversity Department. “In the past six years, our Diversity Department at [KMR], representing talent with disabilities, has seen the talents’ collective earnings grow from $50,000 in 2013 to over $3,000,000 in 2019,” Williamson said in an interview with RespectAbility. “We hope that number will continue to climb as productions realize the value of the authenticity and diversity talent with disabilities bring to a project.”

More portrayals of disability in everyday life, with roles that are not necessarily focused on a character’s disability, can go a long way in improving the perceived disability community as a whole and help to normalize the appearance of actors with disabilities on screen. Just as media has helped to erode other stigmas, the same effect can be had. Increased authentic disability representation in mainstream media can be a catalyst for opportunities, understanding, acceptance, and accessibility.

Actor and disability advocate, Eileen Grubba (Watchmen, New Amsterdam) believes that “the depth of emotion and passion that comes with a real disability experience is unmatchable. It moves people. It also helps audience[s] understand and accept ALL differences, including their own. That is true diversity and it only elevates humanity. It is a win for all,” she told RespectAbility.

Storytelling when utilized in a fully representative way can be evidence that our differences are our strengths. Kudos, NBC. We look forward to more represented experiences both on and off-screen!

About the Author

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Ani Cataldi

Ani Cataldi is a senior at Penn State, pursuing a BA in Strategic Communications and a minor in Media Studies. She is an Intern at AfterBuzz TV, passionate about increasing diversity in the entertainment industry, and lover of all things Bravo, Bravo, Effing Bravo.