I was 17-years-old before I saw someone with Cerebral Palsy cast in a TV program that I watched. There was an actor on Breaking Bad who has CP, but I was too young to understand that program. Disability representation on television is still lacking. Just 22 of the 775 regulars on scripted broadcast series this season have disabilities. That represents 2.8% of characters and is down from a high of 3.5% last year, according to GLAAD.
When I watched Speechless, I saw somebody who looked like me on TV. Micah Fowler, who played the main character, has CP. Very rarely, do those with disabilities get the chance to portray themselves on TV or in a movie. Usually, the actor or actress is non-disabled and is simply acting when he or she depicts disability.
Micah Fowler is someone who understands what it is like to have a disability. Growing up, I rarely saw anybody who looked like me in the media and other aspects of life. I never had a teacher who had a visible disability and rarely saw people like me. It would have meant so much to me if I’d seen disabled people on TV or in the workforce when I was growing up.
The schools I attended often kept severely disabled students separated from everyone else. They were rarely part of school activities. The older I was, the more obvious this became. It was often seen as a way to help out if you spent time with the severely disabled students who were educated in a substantially separate setting. Instead of eating lunch with everyone else, they often had lunch alone in their classroom. In high school, people who used wheelchairs were assigned their own section of the gymnasium or auditorium for school functions.
My high school even hosted a separate special needs prom for students. Prom is a rite of passage for many teenagers, and all teenagers should have the opportunity to enjoy their prom if they would like to. I wonder if school staff even considered how to make their prom inclusive rather than hosting a separate one? At the very least, both events should have accommodated everybody. Proms and school functions need to accommodate all students. Disabled students are students too.
In the adult world, this is even more of a problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.1 percent of people with disabilities in the United States worked in 2021, up from 17.9 percent in 2020. I think these percentages should be much higher than they are. Disabled people are the world’s largest minority, but they often struggle to become employed.
Disabled people who are employed often make subminimum wage while working in sheltered workshops. People working in these settings make an average of just $3.34 per hour. Subminimum wage is perfectly legal, because, since 1938, U.S. labor law has carved out a rule for some people with disabilities, saying they can be paid less than minimum wage. During the Great Depression, this law was intended to encourage the employment of more people.
All people deserve a fair wage. Sheltered workshops don’t exist for non-disabled people, and they shouldn’t exist for disabled people. Disabled people can be a valuable part of the workplace. However, employers need to be willing to hire and accommodate them.
I’ve often been told not to disclose my disability to a prospective employer until I have been invited to an interview. Disabled people shouldn’t fear applying for a job because they are disabled. Non-disabled people get to show up to an interview if they are selected. In most cases, they don’t have to worry about how they physically look to an employer. It should not be any different for those with disabilities.
Disabled people don’t need to be kept away from society. We are the world’s largest minority and aren’t going anywhere. People don’t need to be afraid of disabled people. We are in your neighborhoods, schools, places of worship, local businesses, and workplaces. We deserve to be seen and accommodated.
Caprino, Kathy. “The World’s Largest Minority Might Surprise You, And How We Can Better Serve Them.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2016/04/14/the-worlds-largest-minority-might-surprise-you-and-how-we-can-better-serve-them/?sh=737aa3ca496f.
Heasley, Shaun. “TV Shows Featuring Fewer Characters with Disabilities, Report Finds.” Disability Scoop, Disability Scoop, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2022/02/24/tv-shows-featuring-fewer-characters-with-disabilities-report-finds/29717/.
Selyukh, Alina. “Workers with Disabilities Can Earn JUST $3.34 an HOUR. Agency Says Law Needs Change.” NPR, NPR, 17 Sept. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/09/17/912840482/u-s-agency-urges-end-to-below-minimum-wage-for-workers-with-disabilities.