For the first time in history, a TV show staring people with disabilities has been nominated for Emmy’s. The glass ceiling-breaking show is Born This Way, A&E Network’s critically acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries. Born This Way was nominated for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. In addition, two episodes were nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program.
Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, the series follows a group of seven young adults with Down syndrome along with their family and friends in Southern California. Recently, the series was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates. But the Emmy’s really matter – and they are decided by voters!!
It seems almost impossible that it has taken until 2016 for such a thing to happen. After all, one-in-five Americans has a disability. But according to GLAAD, which tracks minority representation in scripted programs, only 1% of characters we see on TV have disabilities. Moreover, the Ruderman Family Foundation just released a major white paper which found that more than 95% of those all too few characters with disabilities that actually are on television are played by actors without disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.
Born This Way tears down barriers in many ways. Not only does it star people with disabilities, those individuals are diverse. One family has a Jewish background; others are of a variety of faiths. Christina is a Hispanic woman. Elena’s mother is from Japan and they show the immigrant experience. John is African American. This is important for several reasons. One is that when disability is depicted in culture, it tends to be all white. Real story telling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e. person of color + disability). Secondly, far too many people of color in America who have a developmental disability are not getting the diagnosis, school accommodations and high expectations they need to succeed. There are currently 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America – and the majority of them are people of color. The individuals who star in the Emmy nominated show and their families are models of how disability can and should be accepted and addressed in minority communities.
Thousands of people through the Television Academy get to vote on the Emmy’s. We urge them to screen Born This Way and then vote for it, not for affirmative action reasons, but because it is a beautifully crafted show with themes that resonate for all of us, disability or not.
This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive shows and casting, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing only on the disability. Born This Way, in starring people with disabilities, hits all the marks while also being a fun and fabulous show. It deserves the votes of people today!