November 17, 2018

Lights, camera, no action: When will Hollywood diversity include disabilities?

Disabled people are almost invisible on television.

If you were watching any of the top-10 scripted TV shows in the 2015-16 season, there’s a 99 percent chance you didn’t see a character with any type of disability, as defined by the Americans With Disability Act (ADA). And even if you happened to see a character with disabilities on the small screen, only 5 percent of those roles were played by actors with disabilities, with the vast majority played by non-disabled actors.

Things aren’t much better on the silver screen. In a study conducted by Stacy Smith, founder and director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, only 2.4 percent of all the characters with spoken dialogue in the top-100 grossing films last year had any type of disability, as defined by the ADA.

As the recent Ruderman Family Foundation’s white paper on the employment of actors with disabilities in the TV industry documented, the largest, most excluded population group depicted on TV are people with disabilities, a group that, based on the 2010 U.S. Census, makes up almost 20 percent (56.7 million) of our population, including 30.6 million who had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.

The Talmud says, “One who sees … an albino, or a giant, or a dwarf, or a person with dropsy, says, ‘Blessed is He who made his creations different from one another’ ” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 58b). Clearly, when it comes to disabilities, TV sees no blessing in difference.

This vast disparity behind what viewers are seeing on the screen and the reality of growing numbers of Americans with disabilities was the driving force behind the recent Ruderman Family Foundation sponsorship of the Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion in Hollywood, held Nov. 1 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Featuring industry experts from in front of and behind the camera, the four-hour event highlighted the growing frustration of talented actors, writers, directors and producers with disabilities who have trouble even getting a chance to audition, or be part of the writing or production teams, despite years of experience and critical acclaim. 

Academy-award winning actress Marlee Matlin provided an example of this when a friend who is a producer told her that he was making a movie based on a children’s book that included a female character around her age who was deaf. Although Matlin expressed interest in auditioning for the part, she later found out that the part was given to a non-deaf actress who is a major box office name, and then, to top it off, Matlin was asked if she could come on to the set to teach that actress how to “play deaf.”

Actor RJ Mitte, best known as Walter “Flynn” White Jr. on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” series, and who is also the official ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and Shriners Hospitals for Children, said that he has had the chance to travel around the world meeting people with disabilities. They are all looking for the same thing on the screen, he told attendees: some realism in the depiction of their stories. Mitte said that it is still difficult for him to get a role as a non-disabled character.

“It’s not just about trying to get access for us, it’s about getting access for everyone,”  he said. He is going to Russia soon to speak at a conference there about disability inclusion.

Also presenting on a panel was teen actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy. Fowler is playing the first nonverbal leading character with special needs on TV in the new ABC comedy “Speechless.” During the panel discussion, Fowler, who can speak, said, “Sometimes producers and directors are scared to include disabled actors because they have this mindset they might not be able to do this, or it’s too complicated for them.”

Veteran actor Danny Woodburn, who co-authored the Ruderman white paper and probably is best known for his role as the volatile character Mickey on “Seinfeld,” shared why it’s important that people with disabilities are included in the creative process even before the cameras start rolling. “It gets down to authenticity and realism. How many times have I had to say it’s not normal for a little person to bite someone on the ass?” he said to the laughing audience. “And I have been asked to do this on more than one set.” Woodburn is also vice chair of SAG-AFTRA’s Performers With Disabilities Committee. 

After the February #OscarsSoWhite controversy — in which, for the second year in a row, all 20 actors nominated in the lead and supporting categories were white — the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences pledged to create more diversity. But somehow, people with disabilities weren’t included.  

In fact, the same day of the Ruderman roundtable, Variety held a well-attended conference just minutes away at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills on the topic of diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, which was designed to “foster dialogue around various aspects of diversity including ethnicity, gender, sexuality and aging.” But the organizers had not thought to include a single speaker or mention of disabilities until called out by Woodburn and industry guild leaders such as actor Jason George, who chairs the SAG-AFTRA National Disability Advisory Committee.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders in the American Jewish community, is a champion of disability inclusion in TV and film. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed co-authored with Woodburn, Ruderman wrote, “Inequality of self-representation matters on a real, human level. We are not talking about some obscure pursuit; we’re talking about America’s No. 1 leisure activity.”

A lifelong Bostonian who also spends time each year in Israel, Ruderman is a firm believer that by “actively advocating for disability inclusion and impacting the attitudes of society that we are able to cause change.” He said that although many people in Hollywood have personal connections to someone with a disability, they haven’t quite made the leap to include actors and crew members who have disabilities. “Leadership takes courage, and it doesn’t happen on its own without a bit of a shove.”

Maybe it’s time to start memorizing that prayer, thanking our creator for creating so much diversity among human beings.

Michelle K. Wolf writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at special_needs.