Are the Disabled the Last Thought in the Diversity Business?

Despite the presence of disabled characters on such TV shows as Fox's "Glee" and "Brothers" and AMC's "Breaking Bad," wheelchair-bound and other physically or mentally challenged actors on television—as well as film and stage—continue to be anomalous. Advocates for the disabled in the entertainment industry assert that the disabled are the last thought in the diversity business, though there are 56 million people (an estimated 20 percent of the population) with disabilities in this country. In addition to the relative invisibility and misrepresentation of the disabled in the media, advocates say the practice of hiring able-bodied actors to portray the disabled is by no means a thing of the past.

The wheelchair-bound character on "Glee," for example, is played by able-bodied actor Kevin McHale. And recently in New York, deaf and hearing-disabled actors protested the casting of Henry Stram, a hearing actor, to portray John Singer, a deaf character, in Rebecca Gillman's adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." In Gillman's adaptation, however, Singer has become a speaking role. New York Theatre Workshop, which is producing the play Off-Broadway, will not recast the part, said the production's director, Doug Hughes. But an upcoming Broadway revival of "The Miracle Worker" will be holding special auditions for deaf and partially deaf actors who need a sign language interpreter. The production is seeking an understudy for the actor playing young Helen Keller. Still, that kind of accommodation is unusual.

"Historically, there's even a reticence to audition people with disabilities," said Robert David Hall, chair of the SAG/AFTRA/AEA Tri-union Performers with Disabilities Committee and chair of Inclusion in the Arts and Media for People With Disabilities, or I AM PWD. "My able-bodied friends get 80 to 100 auditions a year. I might get five or six or seven. There's still the belief that a disabled actor will slow down the production and cost the producers money and that they will have to make all kinds of accommodations, and if they don't, they'll be sued." Hall, a double amputee who walks on two artificial legs, has a regular role as the coroner on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"It's politically correct for everyone to say they support people with disabilities and there are talented people in every group," Hall continued. "But the truth of the matter is in the numbers. Four years ago, we commissioned a UCLA study and found that one half of one percent of the lines spoken on television is uttered by people with disabilities. And I probably utter half those words." Hall said that while women and minorities are contractually protected, there is no contractual mechanism to count people with disabilities.

Allen Rucker, chair of the Writers Guild of America - West Writers with Disabilities Committee, said the able-bodied are simply uncomfortable in the presence of the disabled. Rucker, an award-winning TV writer who has been paralyzed for 13 years from a neuroimmune disorder called transverse myelitis, said, "Before I got disabled at 51, I made my living writing specials and documentaries. For the first couple of years after I got disabled, my friends went out of their way to hire me. I had endless work, and then it dropped off. It was just too much of a bother. Many studio offices are not even accessible. Some older studio buildings don't have elevators, and in others you have to move the furniture around to get a wheelchair through the door." The obstacles notwithstanding, Rucker has continued to write for television and has branched into publishing, writing three books on "The Sopranos" and a memoir, among other works.

In an effort to raise consciousness and debunk myths, the I AM PWD Campaign (an effort of SAG, AFTRA and Actors Equity Association), the WGA-W Writers with Disabilities Committee, the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television will be sponsoring the Hollywood Disabilities Forum on Saturday, Oct. 24, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at UCLA's Melnitz Hall. Among those slated to participate: Linda Bove ("Sesame Street"), Peter Farrelly ("Something About Mary"), Vince Gilligan ("Deadwood"), Daryl "Chill" Mitchell ("Brothers"), R.J. Mitte ("Breaking Bad"), and Danny Woodburn ("Seinfeld"). During the morning session, workshops and an actors master class will demonstrate the wide range of acting talent among actors with disabilities. Later in the day, a joint actors-writers panel, "People Who Do This for a Living," will address a number of topics, including the issues facing entertainment-industry professionals who have disabilities. Hundreds are expected to attend this unprecedented forum representing a movement that's gaining national momentum.

The Time Is Right

Consider this: On Sept. 16, the I AM PWD campaign was endorsed by delegates to the 2009 AFL-CIO convention through Convention Resolution 18, entitled "Unions Should Give People With Disabilities a Voice and a Face."

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. "There's a lot of dovetailing: It's the work of the alliance in New York and Media Access in L.A., and President Obama is the first president we know of who has actively invited people with disabilities to be part of our democracy in a vocal way. He has appointed someone in the White House who is a disability specialist. In addition, as we have tens of thousands of people who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who are changed, the American public is more aware of disabilities as veterans try to become reintegrated into their family, community, society, and workplace."

Christine Bruno, a disability advocate at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and an actor with cerebral palsy, agreed. "As a result of what Sharon has said about returning vets, there has been the most improvement for amputee performers," Bruno said. "There are now many story lines about them. I frequently get called about returning vets, and to the credit of casting directors, they are looking for authentic amputees. That's what producers want, and that's a good shift."

Jensen estimated that between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of union actors have a disability of one sort or another, with mobility issues being the most prominent, including wheelchair users and those who have problems with balance. There are also those who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or partially deaf, little people, as well as performers who are intellectually challenged. "The disabilities are very different, and I'm not trying to clump everyone together," Jensen said. "But the bottom line for all of them is the need for inclusion."

Misperceptions Galore

Image is the other issue. The depiction of the disabled in theater, film, and television is simplistic at best and oftentimes inaccurate, advocates insist. Bruno recalled attending an audition "where I was told to bring my crutches, because they wanted a visual representation of my disability. I don't use crutches. The fact that I walk with an uneven gait was not enough for them."

The disabled are often portrayed as victims or idealized heroes or exotics, said Jensen. Many writers come to a project with sentimentalized, magical notions. "At the end of the story, the blind person sees or the deaf person hears," she said. "It's never about acknowledging the disability or the experiences of living with it, but rather fixing it."

"You'll rarely see the disabled portrayed as just people—mothers or fathers, lovers, or authority figures," said Hall. "We're either the superbrave activist or the pathetic poor person who needs help. I've on occasion played the veteran in the wheelchair, but I don't get to kiss the girl or have her look into my eyes to see my soul."

Still, he has made a living as an actor for decades on television and radio and in voiceovers. He said he's persistent and thick-skinned and has regularly combated the comment that he should stick to radio and voiceovers and that acting isn't a realistic option for him. "That was enough of a reason for me to go out and do it," Hall said.

Mitte, a young actor with cerebral palsy, has moved ahead rapidly. One of his first jobs was a principal role on "Breaking Bad." He said his part was specifically written for a kid with cerebral palsy, and he hopes the upcoming forum will open up a discussion and lead to many more roles for actors with disabilities.

Rucker is especially optimistic that the new generation—specifically UCLA students who attend the forum—will view people with disabilities in a new light: "We want the next generation to say, 'Yeah, you can have a guy in a wheelchair in a sitcom without ever having to talk about the wheelchair or focus on his disability.' " He'd love to see the day when the entertainment industry is as psychologically and physically accessible to the disabled as many segments of the corporate world.