Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Actors with disabilities find little work In TV, but CBS, Fox lead way in hiring, auditioning, study reports

From Deadline:

A new report finds that while about 20% of Americans have a disability, only 1.7% of all the characters portrayed on TV last season were visibly disabled. The report, from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, also found that “an astonishing 95% of characters with disabilities on TV are played by non-disabled actors.” This, the report concludes, “demonstrates the drastic need for a more accurate representation of people with disabilities on screen in terms of authentic casting and portrayals.” 

“The representation of actors with disabilities on television remains woefully inadequate,” said Foundation president Jay Ruderman. “Despite incremental progress in the right direction by a few networks and studios, actors with disabilities are the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood.” 

The report (read it here) found that 20th Century Fox and CBS were the leaders in hiring and auditioning actors with disabilities. It found that CBS leads in employment with 11 series and pilots having hired performers with disabilities across the network, while 61% of Fox’s dramas (14 out of 23) and 69% of its comedies (nine of 13) auditioned performers with disabilities for the past and current TV seasons. 

“So many times when producers or casting directors hear the word ‘disability’ they think ‘inability,’ and we need to change this preconception,” said Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, co-author of the report and a regular on NCIS: New Orleans (pictured), one of the few primetime series performers with a disability. “What we want is the chance to audition. I wouldn’t have my job if I wasn’t the right fit.” Mitchell has been paralyzed from the waist down since a motorcycle accident in 2001.

ABC had five shows that hired disabled performers during the past year, NBC had three, and Fox had one. On cable, HBO had three shows that hired disabled actors; Showtime and FX had two; and AMC, TBS, Cinemax, Comedy Central, Disney XD, Freeform, Nickelodeon, Pop, Starz, Syfy and TBS each had one. Among the streaming services, Hulu had three shows that hired disabled actors; Netflix and Amazon each had two. 
Networks whose shows didn’t hire any disabled performers – at least, as the report notes, “none with open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones” – include the CW, Disney Channel, Bravo, History, TNT, Spike, TV Land, USA Drama, CMT, Audience Network, VH1, Crackle, Epix and CBS Internet. 
“The imperative for diversity is already widespread in many corners of the industry and we assert that disability is of course a part of diversity,” said the report, which was co-authored by Tari Hartman Squire and Kristina Kopić. “Although we have seen a move in the right direction – more scripted series are open to auditioning and casting talent with disabilities, more performers with disabilities are having positive experiences – we still must acknowledge that we are far from parity with the disability community. The number of working actors with disabilities is far below the 20% of people with disabilities in the population.” 
“Today it would be inconceivable for 95% of Black characters to be played by white actors in blackface,” the report states. “Indeed blackface itself as a practice is almost, though not entirely, inconceivable these days. Although we have to state that this comparison between ‘disabled mimicry’ or ‘cripping up’ and ‘blackface’ is not entirely analogous, and it is important to recognize the difference. For example, according to Anita Cameron, ADAPT Activist and Director of Minority Outreach for the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, ‘Disabled mimicry is not at all the same as blackface, which was a sinister invention and cinematic aggression specifically designed as a genre for the sole purpose to demean black people and make us look foolish with hideous make-up, and exaggerated stereotypes of buffoonery – stereotypes on steroids.’  Filmmaker and disability rights activist Dominick Evans who coined the phrase ‘disabled mimicry’ adds, ‘By contrast, disabled mimicry is based on lowered expectations that performers with disabilities lack the talent to portray a specific role and/or talent with disabilities don’t exist, or can’t be found.’ 
“While we acknowledge that blackface has a deeply racialized history and origin driven by blatant racism, the argument we made in last year’s White Paper maintains that there are some nuanced parallels when it comes to the effect of blackface, as compared to the effect of disabled mimicry: 1) the erasure of a group of people, and 2) public acceptance of that erasure. 
“Blackface is still pervasive within living memory. For example, as recently as 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement, Laurence Olivier received an Oscar nomination for playing Othello in blackface. Today we recognize that casting black actors to play black characters is a given. There are still many obstacles for black actors, but convincing people that the role of a black character shouldn’t go to a White actor in makeup isn’t one of them anymore. However that is one of the obstacles which the disability community still faces in Hollywood – the belief that disability is something to be acted. As Dominick Evans notes, ‘Disability is presented as one of the ‘greatest’ challenges a non-disabled actor can take on, often one they take in hopes of winning the highest honors for their craft.’ 
“The argument we are making is that non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’ or engaging in disabled mimicry is depriving one group of people –in this case America’s largest minority group at 20% of the population –the right to self-representation. It furthermore perpetuates the myth that actors with disabilities are not even good enough to portray themselves.” 
And the report found that TV “isn’t the only culprit. When we turn to movies, just shy of half of all the Oscars for Best Actor since 1988 have gone to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. That is a rather stunning level of erasure. Audiences clearly are welcoming of stories about people with disabilities, yet there is little backlash over the fact that the disabilities on screen are make-believe. There are no actual people with disabilities – at least no open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones –receiving the awards and honor; not since 1987 when Marlee Matlin, a deaf performer, won an Oscar for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God.” 
The authors of the report insists that they are “not absolutists” when it comes to the representation of disabled characters and the actors who play them. “We often have arguments levied our way claiming that not every single character with a disability could possibly be played by an actor with a disability. Some argue that there are certain types of disabilities just too rare to find actors for. To these claims we say: we are not absolutists. Our claim is not that every character with a disability must be portrayed by an actor with a disability. Instead, we advocate for more equity and frequency for performers with disabilities to be considered for any role, whether or not the script indicates disability. 
“Our bottom line is that we must shift those social attitudes and offer talent with disabilities the same opportunities at growth and development as we do to talent without disabilities. It is okay for a non-disabled actor to portray a character with a disability if that person truly is the best fit for the role. But the reverse must hold as well. Production teams must be willing to audition actors with disabilities for a wide variety of roles whether or not disability is specified in the script.”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A wish for authentic disability representation on television to continue

By Beth Haller, Ph.D.
Media dis&dat
(A reprint of a blog post I wrote for the Thompson Policy Institute at Chapman University, July 15, 2017.) 

We are in vibrant “new” world of authentic disability representation on television, with shows like Switched at Birth, Speechless, Little People, Big World, and Born This Way. However, is this authentic representation so new?
In the 1980s, several scholars evaluated authentic disability representation on television when disabled actors appeared on screen, looking at their impact on audiences.
Blind actor Tom Sullivan guest starred on a number of TV shows from the 1970s through the 1990s, and researchers Tim Elliott and Keith Byrd ran an experiment to study the audience response to Sullivan’s non-stereotypical presentation of blindness in the hit show Mork and Mindy (1978-1982).
In addition to viewing the episode, the researchers discussed misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness with participants. Elliott and Byrd found that the viewing and discussion of stereotypes created a nonthreatening environment for participants, allowing them to shift their misconceptions and to accept accurate information about disability.
Research in the 1990s about the first TV show to feature an actor with Down syndrome, Life Goes On (1989-1993), had similar findings. An experimental study in 1999 looked at both a documentary with an independent person with Down syndrome and the Corky character with Down syndrome from Life Goes On.
The research participants saw active, socially engaged people with Down syndrome and that helped counter negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. Most importantly, the participants began to see people with Down syndrome as having equal status in society.
This research illustrated several decades ago that media representations of disability have the power to change audience beliefs about disability. So why does authentic disability representation on TV ebb and flow so significantly?
I believe the answer has three parts. 1. News coverage of disability rights at the time. 2. The shift from guest starring roles to principal character roles. 3. The birth of reality TV.
First, TV writers do not write in a vacuum. They may be writing a 1970s show about a medical unit during the Korean war (M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983), but before they head off to the writers’ room at a TV studio in Los Angeles, they might see news stories about the 1977 disability rights protests at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Obviously, I cannot prove an explicit connection, but my point is that news media coverage of disability topics reminds everyone, including TV writers, that people with disabilities exist. In addition, once disability is in the mix for a plotline, other connections pop up. In the case of the TV show M*A*S*H, the blind actor Tom Sullivan appeared in an episode in 1976, the late actor William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy, had an autistic son, and actor Gary Burghoff, who played Radar, has a disabled left hand from birth.
Secondly, disabled actors working in the 1970s and 1980s who were able to get recurring roles or star as main characters on TV shows reinforced for producers that a disabled actor could carry a show. Deaf actor Linda Bove appeared on Sesame Street from 1972 to 2002, which is the longest recurring role in TV history for a Deaf or disabled person. Actor Geri Jewell, who was on Facts of Life from 1980 to 1984, became the first person with a disability to have a recurring role on primetime TV. In addition, when Chris Burke starred in Life Goes On, he proved that an actor with Down syndrome could carry a prime-time television show.  
I see a direct line from Linda Bove, Geri Jewell, and Chris Burke to actor Micah Fowler, a wheelchair-using actor with cerebral palsy who currently stars in the ABC prime-time comedy Speechless. With the same kind of trajectory, it is my hope that Speechless will lead to more disabled actors being hired in the next few decades. As Lawrence Carter-Long, formerly of the National Council on Disability, wrote in 2016, "Speechless matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life.”
Finally, as much as everyone likes complain about reality TV, it put actual people with disabilities in front of the cameras to show audiences their lives. Also, when their shows became a hit, it gave disabled people more control of the reality shows that featured them.
One of the first versions of the modern reality show, The Real World on MTV, featured in 1992 an actual person with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, Pedro Zamora. President Bill Clinton credited Pedro Zamora with helping lessen the fear people had of those with HIV/AIDS.
Little People Big World (LPBW), which chronicled the lives of the Roloff family in Oregon, premiered on TLC in 2006. The parents, Amy and Matt, both have dwarfism, as does one of their four children. Amy Roloff said in 2010 that when they were approached about doing the show, they saw it as a good way to educate the general public about dwarfism. “Nothing had depicted dwarfism in an everyday way,” she said. LPBW ushered in a number of reality shows about little people. Although mostly viewed as positive, some have criticized these shows as playing into TV audiences’ voyeurism about people with dwarfism.
The success of the show led to more than just reality shows about little people. Little People Big World’s producer also created Push Girls for the Sundance channel, a 2012-2013 reality show about four Los Angeles women who are wheelchair users. These reality shows had good ratings and proved to TV executives that TV audiences are interested in lives of people with disabilities, whether they have a connection to disability or not.
Personally, I have had several conversations about these shows with people who are not connected to the disability community, but they told me they were avid watchers of Little People Big World and Push Girls. (A few years ago, a student of mine, who is a soccer player, said she liked LPBW because the show featured lots of soccer when the Roloff children were still in high school.)
These reality shows are the ancestor of the hugely successful current reality show Born This Way on A&E (2015-present), which features adults with Down syndrome gaining independence and navigating friendships, employment and romantic relationships. During its first season, it increased its ratings by 85%, which was the highest rating increase in A&E’s history. The show also won an Emmy for Best Unstructured Reality Series in 2016.
Born This Way executive producer Jonathan Murray said in 2016 that television is no longer a vast wasteland but a place for enlightenment for audiences on a many aspects of life, including disabled people’s lives. “For too long, people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, have been placed on the sidelines of life and the margins of primetime.” 
Murray, who was a producer on MTV’s The Real World, says Born This Way is more real and authentic, and the production team could not use the typical reality show “tricks” to create drama. “We sort of knew we had something very genuine and very authentic … had to go back to that and trusting the emotion of the scene and that the emotional connection viewers would have with the seven adults would carry through to commercial, and that’s very different,” Murray told Deadline in 2016.
Good television begets more good television, so it is my hope that the ebb and flow of authentic disability representation is over, and the stories of actual disabled people, with authentic casting and plotlines, will become a permanent part of the television landscape.


Angelo, M. (2012, June 1). They are Pretty, Normal, and in Wheelchairs. The NY Times.

Carter-Long, L. (2016, October 3). How ABC’s Speechless is changing attitudes about disability. Upworthy.

Cooper, C. (2010). The Big World of Amy Roloff. Ability Magazine.
 De Moraes, L. (2016, Sept. 26).  Born This Way Celebrates Emmy Win with Third-Season Pickup From A&E.

Elliott, T. R. & Byrd, E.K. (1984). Video Depictions of Blindness and Attitudes toward Disability. Journal of Rehabilitation. Jan-Mar84, Vol. 50 Issue 1. (2016, June 10). Born This Way Receives a 2016 Television Academy Honors Award

Hall, H. & Minnes, P. (1999). Attitudes toward Persons with Down syndrome: The Impact of Television, Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, Vol. 11, No. 1.

Internet Movie Database. (2017).

Kennedy, D. (2006, March).  Little People, Big World. Will TLC’s new reality show change our perception of dwarfs? Slate.  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Disability organization condemns 'Blind' film for casting Alec Baldwin in lead role

From The Los Angeles Times:
The Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading organization advocating on behalf of disabled people, has come out against the forthcoming film “Blind.” The group accuses the movie of “crip-face” — akin to blackface — in its casting of the able-bodied Alec Baldwin as the blind lead.  
“Alec Baldwin in ‘Blind’ is just the latest example of treating disability as a costume,” Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president, said in a statement. “We no longer find it acceptable for white actors to portray black characters. Disability as a costume needs to also become universally unacceptable.” 
“Blind,” which Vertical Entertainment will release July 14, stars Baldwin as a novelist who lost his wife and his sight in a car crash. Years later, he comes into contact with a married socialite, played by Demi Moore, who is forced to read to him as part of a plea bargain. The two begin a love affair forcing Moore’s character to choose between the novelist and her husband. 
Last July, the foundation released its Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors With Disabilities in Television. The study found that despite those with disabilities representing nearly 20% of the country’s population, about 95% of characters with disabilities on television are played by able-bodied actors. 
Months later, in November, the organization hosted its first Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion. At that event, Marlee Matlin, perhaps the most visible and acclaimed disabled actress, spoke about the need for Hollywood to give disabled actors a chance. 
“There is something wrong with this picture,” said Matlin, who 30 years ago won an Oscar for her leading role in Children of a Lesser God.“ “We as an industry keep talking about diversity — we know we have a problem. But, sadly, when we start speaking about diversity, disability seems to be left out far too often.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan unpack the fear, anxiety, and power of disability onstage in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Cost of Living

From Playbill:

Who: Gregg Mozgala & Katy Sullivan
The Theatre: New York City Center – Stage I 
Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, is a play about love, class, intimacy, and loneliness. It dips in and out of these themes in a way that is moving and unexpected. It isn’t necessarily a play about disability, it just so happens that two of the four characters are physically disabled—as are the actors who play them: Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy (CP), and Katy Sullivan, who was born a bilateral above-knee amputee. The two actors open up about their experience of working on the play, and what it means to be a disabled performer in the entertainment industry. 
What is your experience of being a disabled performer—is it challenging to get work? KS: I feel like it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. In this industry, you hope to have something that makes you stand out from the other performers, so, [disability] can be a really cool thing to incorporate into a show. That being said, disability can be a scary thing to the world in general because we’re not represented in the entertainment industry, considering how large the community is—it’s the largest minority in the country, [and yet] less than 1 percent of characters on television are disabled. I didn’t grow up seeing myself anywhere. The first time that I saw a woman that looked like me on TV was me. My hope is that when people start to see themselves reflected in art and in work, younger people will have something to point to and think: ‘I can do this.’ I feel like we’re at a tipping point with this—people are trying to be more inclusive. It’s about figuring out how to do it in a way that’s powerful. 
Cost of Living certainly has some powerful moments. Gregg, in one scene, you are completely naked and being showered. How do you feel about that?GM: I think that is one of the most beautiful moments in the play. To see a disabled body nude onstage, and in that vulnerable, intimate scenario—that’s a theatrical dream of mine. To have audiences see that, I think is really powerful. 
Do you feel like disability can be used onstage or onscreen in a misguided way? KS: I feel like when people are incorporating disability into a project, it’s either about it being inspiring or sad. [The disabled person] is not ever just a human being with needs and wants. I feel like Cost of Living does a really good job of just presenting people living their lives, rather than disability being this elevated thing or a big tragic event.
GM: I feel like to put a disabled person onstage in 2017 is a radical experimental act. The standard practice is to cast non-disabled actors as disabled, and that’s what people are used to. 
Why do you think we haven’t set a practice of casting disabled performers in disabled roles? GM: Katy touched on disability being a “scary thing”—there is a lot of fear and anxiety built into being disabled and how people perceive it. The context to disability is trauma, loss, and pain—really, scary things, and the fear is real. Also, from a pure acting perspective, actors like working through constraints [such as that].
KS: There’s a layer of challenge [for the actor] but also, there hasn’t been a breadth of opportunity for performers with disabilities. A lot of that is because a show hinges on whether it’ll draw an audience so you put an A-list actor in a wheelchair and [voila]. But performers with disabilities will never get to that level unless we’re given opportunities to play the roles that make the most sense for us to play. 
Gregg, I know that you worked with playwright Martyna Majok in helping write some of the lines in the play. Can you tell me about that? GM: Before we took the play to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, we did a workshop of the play and added a scene with a lot of description about what cerebral palsy is and how it feels in the body. She asked me about [how CP feels] and we figured that scene out together. What’s cool is that people with CP have come to see the show and [can relate to what the character is saying]. That’s amazing to me. Not only is it great to embody a character that has the same disability as me, but also, as an actor, I’ve never seen myself reflected back onstage. So to have people in my community see a character that is like them and articulate that experience, is really powerful. 
Lastly, there’s a line in the play that makes fun of the term “differently abled.” Should non-disabled people stop saying it? GM: No one really knows but, in my experience, people within the disabled community prefer “disabled.”
KS: I’m just thrilled to have the conversation. Let’s not be scared. I’d rather someone just ask me. 
Cost of Living is playing through July 16. Tickets are available by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212, online by visiting, or by visiting the New York City Center box office, located at at 131 West 55th Street, New York.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In Australia, TV show deals directly with disability stereotypes

From the Attitude FoundationImage: Dr George Taleporos and Dani Di Toro from the Wheelchair Users episode of You Can’t Ask That(ABC TV).

The best way to shatter a disability stereotype is to let the people with disabilities do it for you. The ABC television series You Can’t Ask That provides a forum for doing just that. 
The format of the program is very simple. It is people fronting the camera with no backdrop, studio sets or other scenery to distract you. They read out questions sent in anonymously by the general public and provide their answers, in their own words. 
Six things that we love about the show:
1. It’s not just about disability, although people with disabilities are well represented. That shows that stereotypes and lack of understanding extends to a range of people.
2. The questions are honest, not politically correct and get an honest answer, sometimes showing that there is often no straight-forward answer about some issues – like should short statured people use their small height as a means to earn money?
3. The program is long enough to allow a range of range of questions and answers to give a full picture of a person’s life experience. That takes it beyond mere curiosity to seeing a well-rounded person with the same aspirations, frustrations and needs as everybody else.
4. By focussing on a different area of disability in each episode (e.g. blindness, wheelchair users, short statured people, facial difference, Down syndrome) it shows the massive range of disability within a “category” and how different the experience of each person is. This helps to show that people with disabilities are not just a “condition”.
5. The people with disabilities are identified at the end, along with which state or territory they live in. This reinforces that they are real people, living real lives.
6. It helps to educate the general public about what is okay to ask and acceptable ways to deal with different types of disability. Always it’s about treating the person as a person, not a disability – just like how you want to be treated. 
You Can’t Ask That screens on ABC1 on Wednesdays at 9pm.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Experts estimate 7,000 bodies of former 'Insane Asylum" patients from late 1800s buried on University of Mississippi Medical Center campus

From USA Today

JACKSON, Miss. — Experts estimate up to 7,000 bodies are buried on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus. 
They are former patients of the state’s first mental institution, called the Insane Asylum, built in 1855, and underground radar shows their coffins stretch across 20 acres of the campus, where officials have wanted to build. 
But those officials have faced a steep cost — $3,000 to exhume and rebury each body, as much as $21 million total. 
Now UMMC is studying the cheaper alternative of handling those exhumations in-house, at a cost of $400,000 a year for at least eight years. It also would create a memorial that would preserve the remains with a visitors center and a lab that could be used to study the remains as well as the remnants of clothing and coffins. 
Ralph Didlake, who oversees UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, believes the lab would be the first of its kind in the nation — giving researchers insight into life in the asylum in the 1800s and early 1900s. 
The Mississippi Lunatic Asylum included a main building and several wings. 
“It would be a unique resource for Mississippi,” said Molly Zuckerman, associate professor in Mississippi State’s department of anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”
Didlake, Zuckerman and others have formed the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, made up of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and even an expert in dating the wood of the coffins. 
It was the consortium that developed the memorial/visitors center/lab plans. 
“We have inherited these patients,” Didlake said. “We want to show them care and respectful management.” 
Asylum's historyMississippi’s first mental institution became a reality when reformer Dorothea Dix rallied support among state lawmakers to fund construction of the $175,000 asylum, completed in 1855. 
Before the asylum, those suffering from mental illness were chained in jails and even attics, said Luke Lampton, chairman of the state board of health. 
While the asylum provided a better place for patients, life remained harsh. Of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one in five died. 
After the Civil War, the facility expanded to house 300 patients, and the area became known as “Asylum Hill,” a neighborhood that included houses, a school and Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, a church for former slaves. 
At its height, about 6,000 patients stayed at the asylum, and the facility provided many jobs to the area. 
In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to the present location of the State Hospital at Whitfield. 
Two decades later, construction began on the same hill for UMMC.
In 2013, UMMC officials discovered 66 coffins while constructing a road on the 164-acre campus. 
When the university began work in 2014 on a parking garage east of the dental school, underground radar revealed 1,000 coffins. More radar work revealed more coffins. 
Didlake said current estimates put the number as high as 7,000.
The consortium is hoping grants can make it possible for other researchers to join the study, he said. 
Personal connection
Karen Clark of Clinton says her great-great-great grandfather, Isham Earnest, is believed to have died at the Mississippi's mental institution between 1857 and 1859.

Karen Clark of Clinton would like to see a grant given to collect DNA from all the patients. “It would make these people identifiable if family members came forth,” she said. 
She is willing to donate her own DNA to see if it matches her great-great-great grandfather Isham Earnest. The War of 1812 veteran moved to Neshoba County in 1842, was ruled “insane” in the 1850s and is believed to have died at the asylum between 1857 and 1859. 
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants are here today because of Isham Earnest,” she said. “Many are teachers, nurses, educators and ministers.” 
When she recently went through old asylum records and read about patients there, she felt overcome with emotion, she said. “I thought, ‘This person could be saved if modern medicine were there.’ ” 
Her sympathy runs high for those in the asylum “because I’ve had mental issues in the distant past,” she said. “No one took me and dumped me.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Australian non-profit plans new documentary TV series that will focus on people with disabilities

Frustrated by representation of disability in the media, particularly in television, the Attitude Foundation, founded by former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes, is seeking to change the story. 
A 13-episode documentary series will feature “interesting people who happen to have a disability” telling their story. 
Alex Varley, the foundation’s CEO, told Pro Bono News the portrayal of disability in television didn’t reflect real life. 
“When we were looking at where are the issues, the problems around the portrayal of people with disability, we recognised that the big area is the way that people with disability are portrayed in the media,” Varley said. 
“You’ve really got two dimensions for that. One is that you don’t necessarily see many people with a disability actually in the media, particularly… television programs where you have normal drama. 
“There’s some Screen Australia studies which have shown that around 4 per cent of characters in Australian drama are people with disability, whereas of course the general population is around 18 to 20 per cent. 
“And then when you actually see people with disability in things like television programs, there’s a lot of stereotypes.” 
One of the stereotypes, according to Varley, is the idea that disability needs to be cured. 
“Particularly when you’re watching things like the news where a very typical scenario is the scientist or the doctor who has discovered some miracle cure for a poor disabled child who is helpless and pitiful, and really focusing all the time on those extreme stories and extreme portrayals of disability,” he said. 
“Whereas in fact we know… most people with disabilities are not helpless.“They’re just ordinary people getting on with their lives and sometimes their disability and the way that society deals with it may impact on their lives, but it doesn’t define them necessarily.” 
The Attitude Foundation said other common stereotypes included “disabled villains”, with disability framed as the as the basis of resentment or “objects of total inspiration”, where a person is shown to “overcome” their disability. 
Varley said accurate representations of other minority groups have been proven to change societal attitudes. 
“Television still has a major impact,” he said. 
“There’s a few research studies that have been done over the years and in fact one of the more famous ones was the ‘Will and Grace effect’, after that American TV show, which was actually about attitudes towards gay people. 
“What that showed… is that it actually helped to change mainstream attitudes towards gay people as just being part of society as your colleagues, your friends and neighbours and everyone else.” 
There are some guidelines that television studios are supposed to follow around the portrayal of people with disability. 
But Varley said, despite these measures chipping away at the issue, it wasn’t enough. 
“We look at it and say: ‘Can we actually change every single television program that appears?’ and of course the obvious answer to that is: ‘Well no you can’t,’” he said. 
He said there were a number of reasons to produce TV series featuring people with disabilities. 
“The reason for us doing it and making a series from it is that you get prolonged exposure,” he said. 
“And what you get to see then is the variety of people with disability, and it’s not all about the stereotypes like every blind person has a guide dog or carries a white cane… or every person with a physical disability is in a wheelchair. 
“It’s about us focusing on something that we think is achievable, that we know will have an impact, and that we can help to control that message and get those proper stories made by people with disabilities.” 
Varley said the series would be in a similar style to Australian Story.“It’s about telling an individual’s story – someone with disability – and it’s not going to be sensationalist,” he said. 
“But obviously the people who will be involved in the programs will have interesting stories in themselves. No one watches boring television and you don’t change attitudes if no one watches it. 
“But what it will do is really give you more nuances and tease out how they live and what happens when their disability impacts on them because of what society does.” 
The Attitude Foundation is fundraising to produce the pilot episode.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ruderman Family Foundation challenges TV content creators to audition, cast more actors with disabilities this pilot season

The Ruderman TV Challenge was designed to continue our work in Hollywood and advocate for greater inclusion of performers with disabilities. At a time when the discussion around the need for greater diversity in Hollywood is garnering great attention, disability is still being left out. But disability is a fundamental part of the human experience and needs to be included in depictions of diversity. 

This project by the Foundation builds on the widelycovered Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilitiesa study which found that only 5% of all characters with disabilities on screen were portrayed by performers with disabilities. It also comes as the next step after we hosted the Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion in Los Angeles attended by around 200 industry insiders this past November. 
The context that demonstrates the need for more inclusion of people with disabilities on screen is self-evident. Approximately 20% of people have a disability, which makes them the largest minority in the U.S. However, depictions of disability in film and television are consistently around or under 2% of all characters—a statistic that shows a staggering discrepancy of representation. 
What we’re asking is a simple request for television content creators to audition and cast more performers with disabilities this pilot season. 
As pilots are still being announced and filmed, several roles remain to be cast. While it would be great to have far more performers with disabilities in principal roles, we challenge content creators to raise the visibility of the disability community in a much lower-stakes, higher-impact approach: cast any minor role or even background character as a person with disabilities. Do you still need to fill the role of the bank teller or the woman taking her dog for a walk in the background? Audition talented actors who are wheelchair-users, or amputees or any other disability. 
We will track the pilots this season and study the results of this challenge to learn which show and/or network excels in its commitment to inclusion and diversity. The results will be published in advance of the 2017 Emmys. 
How can this be done? 
Scripted shows like SpeechlessNCIS: New Orleans and Switched at Birth for example are authentically portraying disability and successfully demonstrating not only that there are incredibly talented performers who are people with disabilities, but that audiences embrace these characters. Audiences are hungry for representation of themselves and their family members on screen. Television has the power to shatter disability myths. 
For this project we have teamed up with two remarkable industry influencers: Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, a long-time advocate of diversity and inclusion, producer, and actor well-known for his current role in the CBS hit NCIS: New Orleans. And with Tari Hartman Squire, the creator of Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 Collaborative, a veteran of the disability inclusion movement in Hollywood and the builder of school-to-screen pipelines for inclusion. 
With her help we have compiled a list of resources to get you started. If you have any questions, please contact Kristina Kopic, the co-author of the Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities, and one of the collaborators of the Ruderman TV Challenge. You can reach her at  
We look forward to seeing your creative and innovative commitment to inclusion. 
Disability-Inclusive Diversity Resources:
  • Breakdown Services/Actors Access (over 4,000 performers with disabilities):
  • Changing the Face of Beauty:
  • Disability Film Challenge (open to aspiring filmmakers with disabilities):
  • DisBeat (authentic disability sources for journalists):
  • GLAAD Where Are We On TV: Annual Diversity Report:
  • Inclusion in the Arts (performers with disabilities and portrayals):
  • LCA 2.0 Clinton Global Initiative (Commitment to Action):
  • LCA 2.0/EIN SOF Communications (employment-in front of and behind the camera/portrayals):
  • Media Access Awards:
  • Meet the Biz:
  • SAG-AFTRA Diversity Committees (including PwD):
  • Writers Guild of America West – Diversity: