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

The Children Who Survived

In her solo show, “Silent Witnesses,” Stephanie Satie portrays four women, all childhood survivors of the Holocaust, who share their stories as a celebration of the human spirit. The idea for the play, which will be staged on Sept. 20 at the South Pasadena Library, came to Satie when she was performing at a fundraiser for Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles.

“It was a parlor performance,” Satie said, “and I was doing ‘Coming to America,’ which is a series of nine monologues of women who came from horrendous circumstances — from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Russia, Serbia and El Salvador — and remade their lives in America.”

During the Q-and-A, Satie commented on how good-looking the child survivors were.

“One person said to me, ‘Well, nobody saves the ugly puppies,’ which is a line in the play. I was blown away, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have a theme here.’ And they suggested that I use them for new material,” Satie said. “In 2005, I started interviewing women who had been at this event, and they were forthcoming and wonderful.”  

Satie, who plays all four roles, has structured her script as an informal support group consisting of three women and a therapist, Dana, who is also a survivor.

“I don’t know where to begin or end with Dana,” Satie said, “because Dana is absolutely heroic. She was a child who was hidden on the outside, meaning that she was hidden in a rural village in Poland with her mother. Her mother pulled her through, because her mother was an attractive, skillful, resourceful woman who lived creatively.  Dana inherited her resourcefulness, but without the wiliness. Dana is the nexus of this group,” Satie said. 

Another of the witnesses, Paula, is the only one of the group to have been in a concentration camp. 

When life in the ghetto became too dangerous, her family sent her into the woods, where she had to fend for herself. After being sent to a work camp, Paula was moved to Auschwitz. After her liberation, she lived in a German
displaced-persons camp for six years. 

“Her story is extraordinary, because she is so articulate, so tough, also brilliant, and her survival was in her own hands,” Satie said. “She has to bring herself to tell her story. She was never allowed to tell it; she was silent and afraid to tell her story.  When she came to America, she was forced to assimilate, quietly, because no one wanted to know about what she experienced. So her journey is to bring out her voice.”  

Director Anita Khanzadian

The journey that a woman named Amelie has to make, according to Satie, is to go beyond her fear. She is very involved with archives, books and facts, because she can’t seem to access her Holocaust experience.

“She was hidden with families in Belgium, and she was very afraid and very frail, because she had asthma. She was just like a terrified little Chihuahua, just quaking all the time, and yet she survived, through very kind families in Belgium,” Satie said.   

The fourth member of the group, Hannah, has to remember what she can’t face. She was hidden by a family in Holland, but was kept indoors after she was recognized on the street.

“What really is touching to me about her,” director Anita Khanzadian remarked, “is her saying, ‘I was fine. Nothing much happened to me.’ And it’s true — she couldn’t remember anything. And there’s that little section toward the end where she says, ‘Now that I have a granddaughter, 4 years old, and I think of her being taken away, I know something must have happened to me.’ ”

Khanzadian said she relates intensely to themes of genocide and the Holocaust because of her Armenian background.

“I can identify with just being a child in a war zone,” she said. “My mother was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and she was an orphan. I’ve heard stories from my mother that were so similar to those in the play. She and her younger brother were the only ones from her family to survive.  

“She was in an orphanage, and I used to ask her what she remembers from before that. So she would tell me some stories.  The last time she saw her mother was when her mother put her into the American College with her brother, who was younger. They were taking children but not grownups.”

Khanzadian also said she was particularly struck by the incredible ability to survive that is illuminated through the work, along with the incredible life force that is not easily extinguished.

“Every one of these women had that. And the other thing that makes me like this piece is expressed in the line toward the end that I tell Stephanie is so important: ‘People have to hear about this. They have to know that they didn’t kill all of us. We’re still here.’  That was the attempt — to get rid of all of them.  And they can’t do that.  And they won’t do that.  And I think it’s important.”

Khanzadian would like audiences to come away from the play having learned something they may not have known before meeting these women. 

And Satie wants her audiences to understand that what happened to these women could happen to anyone.

“I would like them to leave with a sense that it really did happen, as there are more and more loud voices of denial, and that these people may not be around to tell their stories that much longer, and we need to hear them. We need to hear everyone’s story so we’re not distanced from catastrophic events, so we realize that they happen to people — they don’t just happen to nebulous countries far away on maps that we don’t even recognize. Catastrophic events happen to people.”

“Silent Witnesses.” 7 p.m.  Sept. 20. Free. South Pasadena Public Library, Community Room, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena. (626) 403-7340.