Opinion: More Representation of People with Disabilities is Needed in America

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When I went blind at age 10, I frequently found that the first thing I heard from others—family, friends, and strangers alike—was something along the lines of how terrible it was, how sorry they were for me, or how that person could not imagine what I was going through. 

Alex Gray

These reactions make an impact on you and make you begin to question what your life will be like moving forward and whether the dreams you once had for yourself are now possible.

I found these negative thoughts hard to silence because I struggled to find examples of others like me who were blind and who had still accomplished their dreams. There were no blind athletes competing in Olympics, Super Bowls, or World Series; no blind people winning on election night; no blind people accepting Oscars, Emmys or Tony Awards; and it was rare, if ever, that I remember blind people being discussed in the news.

For a group of people consisting of roughly one out of every four American adults and who are the largest demographic minority in our country, it is astonishing how infrequently the stories of the disability community are told in society. Storytelling is a powerful way to provide positive role models for people within the disability community and to educate others outside of it about the experience of what it is actually like living with a disability.

This December 3 in honor of the International Day of People with Disabilities, let’s strive to share more stories and experiences of people with disabilities and let’s start with these three steps.

First, the disability community should play a far greater role in shaping the stories we tell on screen. During the 2018-2019 season, it was estimated that only 2.1% of characters played on television had disabilities. This scarcity is not simply limited to television as in 2016 it was estimated that out of the top 100 highest grossing movies that only 2.7% of characters portrayed had disabilities. Furthermore, it was found that in 2018 of these characters with disabilities only 22% on network TV and 20% on streaming services were authentically portrayed by an actor with the same disability. It is unacceptable that only approximately one-half of one percent of disabled characters are portrayed by actors with the lived experience of having a disability.

Second, the presence of people with disabilities in our workforce and the discussion of our experiences within organizational culture is seriously lacking and needs to increase. In 2019, only 19.3% of Americans with disabilities were employed. And at a time when organizations are focusing more and more on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, it was found in 2020 that 90% of companies participated in D&I efforts but sadly only 4% of these D&I efforts addressed disability. People with disabilities are an innovative, highly adaptable, and empathetic group of people who would improve any company or organization and we must find more ways to hire people with disabilities and include discussions of the disability community within the culture of organizations.

Third, the disability community is drastically underrepresented within elected office in America and because of this we risk our stories going untold in the halls of government. It was estimated in 2015 that there are more than 500,000 elected offices across the United States ranging from local government all the way up to The White House. In 2019, a survey nationally found that as few as 51 elected officials with disabilities were serving in America. Our government needs to, and will only become stronger, if it includes the voices and stories of the disability community and this is why I am running in 2021 to become Boston’s first-ever blind City Councilor and, if elected, the only blind City Councilor currently serving in America.

A popular saying within the disability community comes from South Africa in the 1980s and states “nothing about us without us.” On the International Day of People with Disabilities, let us work to make these words come true in Boston and across America by ensuring that the stories of the disability community are told every day in every aspect of our society.

Alex Gray is a candidate for At-Large Boston City Council