One in four adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, but you wouldn't know it given the lack of representation in the workforce, Hollywood, and media coverage. Voices of Disability celebrates the real stories — not the stigmas or stereotypes — of this dynamic and vibrant community of individuals.
Lauren Ridloff, Danielle Perez, and Diana Elizabeth Jordan all have one thing in common: They are passionate and dedicated to the craft of acting. You might not know their names, though. The women, who hail from across the U.S., now primarily reside in Los Angeles, and represent a variety of ages, backgrounds, and circumstances. But they share a common thread: Throughout their careers, they have all found it difficult to land leading roles as women of colour who have a disability.
Jordan is a 57-year-old actress and director who has cerebral palsy; 36-year-old Los Angeles native Perez is an actress, writer, and stand-up comedian who uses a wheelchair; and Ridloff is a 42-year-old award-winning Deaf actress who is slated to make history playing a Deaf superhero in Marvel film The Eternals, scheduled to be released in 2021.
Since #OscarsSoWhite became a trending topic in 2015, A-list stars, producers, and directors have all spoken up in various settings about Hollywood’s systemic colour issue and lack of diversity. Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes, and Issa Rae are just three prominent figures who have been critically vocal about the lack of diversity in casting people of color in blockbuster movies or major TV dramas. It’s a conversation we’ve had the displeasure of annually revisiting since April Reign first created the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite five years ago. And while it might not seem like any progress has been made, at least the conversation exists in the public discourse.
Very little, if any, attention has been paid to the lack of disabled women of color being considered for roles. A 2018 study from the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 80% of disabled characters on television are portrayed by non-disabled actors. The research covered about 280 networks and streaming shows from that year. In addition, 26% of the U.S. population (one in four people) has a disability, but fewer than 2% of all television characters do, according to the same study. Of that extremely small number of disabled characters on screen, nearly all are white. In addition, a study from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that combed through 900 popular movies from 2007 to 2016 found that only 2.7% of characters with speaking roles were portrayed as disabled.
Ridloff, Perez, and Jordan don’t see their disabilities as hampering their ability to do their chosen craft, nor should the color of their skin be an additional barrier to entry to Hollywood. Here, they speak to Refinery29 about their experiences fighting for a major shift that is long overdue in the industry.
Diana Elizabeth Jordan, 57, actor and director
“Some barriers that we constantly face are the physical ones. If you’re going into an audition and there’s only stairs, how are we supposed to get to the audition? We can’t. Also, seeing someone’s disability as a negative is a barrier, instead of seeing it as part of someone’s intersectional identity and a part of their cultural identity.
“They need to broaden the roles they select actors for. Why can’t a judge be someone who is blind or visually impaired? Why can’t the love interest be a person of color who is disabled? Why can’t the romantic lead be a plus-sized woman? Why can’t this role be played by someone from the LGBTQ+ community?
“I hope Hollywood can become representative of humanity and what actually exists in our society. The industry really needs to show more diverse images on the screen.
“I think there’s been more conversations, but how are we going to be more inclusive racially? I just hope that when that is brought up to people’s attention, I just hope that disability is included in that part of the conversation as well.
“You know we are like 18 to 20% of the population, but we are visible in less than one percent of the roles, and that’s a horrible discrepancy. I want to see that changed, and I’m proud to be a champion for that.
“It’s so important for kids and for people to see themselves represented in storytelling. Disability should be a part of the American scene. And not to be in minor roles, but major roles that tell incredible stories. Diversity teaching is so important.
“You know with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, that is important to me as a human being and Black woman. But disabled Black lives matter also, and I think there’s so many times that disability becomes invisible and is dismissed. That can upset how someone feels about themselves. I want people with physical and invisible disabilities to be able to celebrate who they are and be included in Hollywood.
“I am as proud that disability is part of my identity as the fact that I'm African-American, and my disability is not something I feel ashamed about. They’re all part of my identity.”
Lauren Ridloff, 42, actor
“I’ve always felt that I was a storyteller. I was a teacher for almost 10 years at a public school in Manhattan. I aspired to (and still want to) write books. I did not aspire to become an actor. In fact, I thought I’d stop performing after the Broadway show I was in ended, but after I experienced stepping into someone else’s shoes, my world just felt so much bigger. I realised the impact my representation had on the Deaf as well as the general community and that fuelled my desire to continue acting.
“I feel like it was a fluke, the way I got into the business! I was a stay at home mother when Kenny Leon contacted me about tutoring him in ASL and Deaf culture. A mutual acquaintance gave him my name after seeing me on stage 20 years ago as Miss Deaf America. We met weekly for a year and then he asked me to do a table read as a stand-in until they found the right actress. After doing the table read, Joshua Jackson told Kenny that he was interested in doing the play only if I could be Sarah. Kenny knew that I was a new mom and quite happy with how my life was going so he pulled me aside and asked, ‘If this goes to Broadway, would you be willing to go all the way?’ I said, ‘YES!’ So that’s how I got into the business.
“Another challenge that I face as a Deaf actor is finding authenticity in the characters I am supposed to play. There is an absence of Deaf writers or consultants or just general Deaf people working behind the scenes, so the stories that are developed are usually written from a hearing person’s perspective. As a result the character that is born appears generic or stereotypical. I’ve seen some absolutely wonderful storytelling from outsiders who actually had genuine experiences with a Deaf person. It really shows and makes the character pop individually.
“The absence of the Deaf 'voice' really pops out to me while I am trying to portray my character authentically. I find myself having to confer with the creatives often to find ways to work around the dialogue or the plot flaws to bring my Deaf character to full fruition.
“I feel that when people see me, they see a person who is more than just Deaf — I am also Black, Mexican and a woman. I champion for multiple communities. Don’t get me wrong — I am proud to represent and advocate for marginalised communities, but I dream of the day when we can just act.”
Danielle Perez, 36, actor, writer and stand-up comedian
“In the scope of acting, I don’t like that I’m not able to audition for parts that aren’t explicitly Black, Latino, or disabled. It’s very, very rare that I audition for a part that is not coded or strongly implied that that’s what they’re looking for or outright written that they’re looking for that type of person and that’s pretty ridiculous.
“How come I can’t just be the lead? Why do I have to be the friend or coworker who’s Black or Latina? How come pretty much every audition that I have had on a procedural is that of a paraplegic Army veteran who now can’t walk? Like, come on, give me a break, there are disabled experiences beyond that.
“It’s like you can have so many talented, brilliant disabled actors and you know actors of colour, but if the executives at the top don’t want to see those people on screen, you’re not going to see those people on screen.
“If they don’t have this idea that a disabled woman can be a romantic lead, you’re not going to see that. Their idea of what should be on screen is so limited by what’s been on screen, that their world isn’t expanded to include people like me, and talent like me.
“People really should learn how to light Black people. That’s something that needs to happen. I also think that the people in charge – the gatekeepers, the producers, the executives, the people that greenlight TV shows and movies – need to honestly give a shit about seeing disabled actors on screen, telling their own stories.
“You can have a million diversity programs and say, ‘Oh we’re doing a meet and greet, we’re going to meet actors and talent,’ but until you’re legitimately committed to that, nothing is going to happen.
“Most of the stand-up venues in Los Angeles are not accessible for me to perform. Stand-up in Los Angeles requires me to crawl on the floor to be lifted on- and off-stage, to enter through back alleys, and not have access to green rooms which is where fellow comics gather and talk shop, connect with each other, and more. It’s not fair that I miss out on that.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.