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Disability is a normal part of the human experience. But you would never know from Netflix. The Netflix Inclusion Report is out, and unsurprisingly, the disability representation statistics are grim. The report found that “a total of 2.1% of all speaking characters were shown with a disability.” Only 2% despite the fact that according to the US Census, 27.2% of the people in the United States have a disability. Only 5.3% of the film or series leads had a disability. This lack of representation is why millions of us who identify as disabled do not see anyone like us on screen.
Netflix isn’t the only one skipping disability (both in portraying disabled actors and in disability storylines). The inclusion report refers to similar dismal representation rates for disabilities in the highest-grossing films. At least Netflix blames itself by publishing the numbers. And there are some bright spots in the content of the streaming platform (call Special, one of the few series written by a disabled actor in which he stars, and the upcoming adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, in the one of my favorite disabled characters of all time appears in Netflix’s Grishaverse mashup Shadow and Bone.)
A glaring loophole in the Netflix report: How many roles with disabilities have disabled actors been assigned? As with the rest of film and television, the answer is always very slight. True representation shows people who actually have a disability in front of and behind the camera. And how many of the speaking roles have disabled people reduced to stereotypes? (Tiny Tim is probably depressing, somewhere in that role).
For a better illustration of disability, here are some books that Netflix can customize. While these books feature disabled people, a story doesn’t have to be * about * disability to have disabled characters and / or actors. Occupy disabled actors in any literary adaptation. (Pride and Prejudice! Bridgerton! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Personally, I’d love to see disabled actors in petticoats.) Disability or lack of it does not define characters. Still, stories that capture the experience of disability are important. So, Netflix, here are some suggestions for books starring disabled people.
We never meet in Samantha Irby’s real life
I’ve chosen that we never meet in real life, but any of Irby’s personal essay collections are ripe for adaptation. Irby is both funny and poignant when she openly writes about being a black, weird woman with Crohn’s disease, degenerative arthritis, and depression. Her essays are steadfast explorations of her experiences, including life in a disabled body. Plus, she’s already writing for Shrill and the Sex In the City revival, so it’s a breeze to hire her to suit her own work.
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Helen Hoang’s kiss quotient
In Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, Stella, an autism computer programmer, decides that hiring a handsome escort is the most efficient way to practice sex. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with him, but in this sweet and very steamy romance, it’s the logical direction. The novel offers an interesting perspective on dating and navigating disabilities with a romantic partner. Hoang identifies as in the spectrum and bases the book on aspects of her own experience.
Borderline by Mishell Baker
In Mishell Baker’s Borderline, a failed suicide attempt turned aspiring filmmaker Millie into a double amputee. As she adjusts to her new physical condition and lives with a borderline personality disorder, she gets involved with the Arcadia Project, a secret organization that monitors the flow of creatures to and from a parallel world. If it’s her job to find one of those creatures who also happens to be a Hollywood movie star, she’ll have to find him before the war breaks out between the two worlds. The author, who identifies himself as borderline personality disorder, has created a series that incorporates physical disabilities and mental illness into the exciting detective work.
The gray house of Mariam Petrosyan
Please, please, please Netflix customize my favorite story about youth and disability. Over 700 pages of history unfold in a building, an institutional “home” for children with disabilities. The title house is their whole world, and through the magic of Petrosyan’s craft, the reader feels how diverse, frightening, and magnetic such a world can be. The Gray House features teenagers who are both brutal and empathetic. The portrayal of handicap, friendship and youthful existentialism was correct, even if it was interwoven with the fantastic. I couldn’t find out more about the author’s own experiences with disabilities, but as a disabled reader, I found the portrayal of various disabilities to be authentic and often exciting.
The witch elm by Tana French
I was surprised that disability is a central theme in The Witch Elm, a stand-alone novel by the author of The Dublin Murder Squad. There is murder, of course, but when Toby, an extremely self-confident man, suffers a traumatic brain injury, he grapples with what could potentially be a permanent handicap to his privileged self-awareness. Tana French is one of my favorites – she creates a tableau for her characters that consists of equal parts sunlight and darkness. This novel is an atmospheric and meandering exploration of how much we can ever truly trust ourselves.