The Emmys: The other election that matters for civil rights
Disability is playing a major role in the United States presidential election. Polls show that the No. 1 issue that reflected badly on Donald Trump was when he mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability. Meanwhile, people who have disabilities were featured at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Our political establishment is waking up to the fact that people who have disabilities make up 20 percent of our population and a large bloc of voters. But the presidential election is not the only voting that matters: The Emmy Awards voting also matters.
For the first time in history, a TV show starring people with disabilities has been nominated for Emmys. 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 salutes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates. But the Emmys 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, 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. But according to GLAAD, which tracks minority representation in scripted programs, only 1 percent of characters we see on TV have disabilities. Moreover, the Ruderman Family Foundation recently released a major white paper that found that more than 95 percent of those all-too-few characters with disabilities who are on television are played by actors who don’t have disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism — discrimination against people who have disabilities — in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people who have 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 who have disabilities, those individuals are diverse. One family has a Jewish background; others are of a variety of faiths. Christina is Hispanic; 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 storytelling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e., person of color plus disability). Second, far too many people of color in the United States 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 who have disabilities behind bars in the U.S. — 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 Emmys. 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, regardless of disabilities.
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 Emmy recognition.
Jay Ruderman is the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of www.RespectAbilityUSA.org