Abilities United

20 Years of ADA & Hollywood

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This past week we in the disAbility community celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills ever signed into law – which has had a significant impact on the equal rights of those with a disAbility – and not just here in America but it help to set a standard for other countries all over the world. And I did my part in recognizing and celebrating this 20th Anniversary by joining with 193 other wheelers at the Los Angeles Dodger’s stadium parking lot Sunday morning, July 25, 2010, to participate in the event sponsored by the “Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation” and the “Life Rolls On Foundation” to celebrate the 20th Anniversary and for the Guinness World Record of “Most Wheelchairs in a Moving Line”!

Before we lined up for the World Record we gathered after the activities to form a human ADA picture! I am in the middle of the straight line on the left side of the “D”! Can’t really see me but I am there, I promise!

The very next day was the exact 20th Anniversary of the signing and President Obama did make it significant through a Public Service Announcement (which is quoted below), by signing a Proclamation, and some remarks at a gathering of administration members and other guests on the South Lawn of the White House.

Some of those remarks should be highlighted. After relating some of the stories of people being denied basic rights because of their disAbility, the demonstrations, protests, activists fighting for a change, getting people in positions of power in Washington D.C. to help, and with the founders of the ADA, the President said:

They understood this injustice from the depths of their own experience.  They also understood that by allowing this injustice to stand, we were depriving of our nation — we were depriving our nation and our economy of the full talents and contributions of tens of millions of Americans with disabilities.

That is how the ADA came to be, when, to his enduring credit, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law, on this lawn, on this day, 20 years ago.  That’s how you changed America.


Equal access — to the classroom, the workplace, and the transportation required to get there.  Equal opportunity — to live full and independent lives the way we choose.  Not dependence — but independence.  That’s what the ADA was all about.

But while it was a historic milestone in the journey to equality, it wasn’t the end.  There was, and is, more to do.  And that’s why today I’m announcing one of the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment in 1991.

Today, the Department of Justice is publishing two new rules protecting disability-based discrimination — or prohibiting disability-based discrimination by more than 80,000 state and local government entities, and 7 million private businesses.

Of course I have to wonder if the companies in the motion picture and television industry are part of those “7 million private businesses” that will be prohibited from “disability-based discrimination”.

Why do I have to wonder about Hollywood being affected? Look at the history of the industry employing those with a disAbility – especially in the most visible and creative roles – the ones that actual represent those that are being marketed in their products, actors, writers, directors.

And if we just look at the history from the past 20 years since the signing of the ADA – we see little, very little change in these very important positions.

AND if we look the only industry study on those working or trying to work in the industry with a disAbility – the 2005 SAG published report, “The Employment of PERFORMERS WITH DISABILITIES in the Entertainment Industry” we can see the details on how much the industry discriminates against those with a disAbility. And with the exceptions of forming some “committees” and outreach programs that is basically all that has changed in the past 5 years! SAG really is the industry leader in advocating and keeping a focus on those with a disAbility in the entertainment industry but despite their efforts they reported in October 2009 that the “Latest Casting Data Follows Historical Trends and Continues to Exclude People with Disabilities” stating:

Despite years of bargaining with producers to include the hiring of performers with a disability in Casting Data Reports, this protected category continues to be left out. Fifty-six million Americans — 20% of the U.S. population — have a disability. Despite being the largest minority group in the country, people with disabilities remain virtually invisible in entertainment media.

There are some portrayals of paraplegics in the past year that have been in very successful movies and television – but is any portrayal good portrayal? The top movie in box office history, released in December 2009 featured in the leading role, a paraplegic character that despite under the circumstances of being ideal for a paraplegic actor to portray (hiring an unknown actor and that all “able bodied scenes” were computer generated images of an alien species) “Avatar” employed an able bodied actor, was written and directed by able bodied James Cameron, and was a movie filled with stereotypes, clichés and predictably contrived inspiration.  On the small screen, the highly watched new television series that debuted in 2009, “Glee” with a regular paraplegic character is not only also portrayed by a previously unknown able bodied actor – they accurately portrayed in episode 9, “Wheels” how offensive, upsetting, demeaning it is for someone to fake a disAbility through and by the paraplegic character that is portrayed and represented by an able bodied actor faking that he has a disAbility. Full of hypocrisy and if that wasn’t enough, in that same episode, another character on the show, Finn, who is the high school football quarterback and obviously able bodied, fakes being a paraplegic to get a job while threatening the manager with a discrimination lawsuit based on his disAbility if he wasn’t hired.

So they can discriminate by not hiring paraplegic actors while at the same time can preach how wrong it is to fake having a disAbility while they fake having a disAbility! But how do they get away with it – both legally and morally? Mainly in the Hollywood legal loophole they use called by the artistic prerogative of “who’s best for the part”. But why do they not use that excuse when portraying other minorities? And will it continue to allow them to side-step the ADA in both the letter and spirit of the law?

Speaking of the Letter & Spirit of the Law!

The President went on to say, during his remarks on the South Lawn, that the government would take the lead and be the model for businesses across America in employing those with a disAbility:

We’re also placing a new focus on hiring Americans with disabilities across the federal government.  Today, only 5 percent of the federal workforce is made up of Americans with disabilities — far below the proportion of Americans with disabilities in the general population.  In a few moments, I’ll sign an executive order that will establish the federal government as a model employer of individuals with disabilities. 

I wish Hollywood would be the leader in this since they are the ones that influence the culture and opinions of many through the power of the entertainment images that are all around us – but will they at least follow the government and the President’s executive order for them employing those with a disAbility?

And it is not just here in America but globally as the President wants to continue to be the example for the rest of the world:

And to promote equal rights across the globe, the United States of America joined 140 other nations in signing the U.N.  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — the first new human rights convention of the 21st century.

America was the first nation on Earth to comprehensively declare equality for its citizens with disabilities.  We should join the rest of the world to declare it again — and when I submit our ratification package to Congress, I expect passage to be swift.

Would you say that American citizens with a disAbility have equality in Hollywood? Anywhere in Hollywood – such as employment? Portrayals? Representation? Should there be a ratification package or at least a clause that would require Hollywood to fairly and equally represent those with a disAbility? Or will the industry do it on their own?

The President concluded his remarks with the basic freedoms and equality that should be given to all Americans:

Equal access.  Equal opportunity.  The freedom to make our lives what we will.  These aren’t principles that belong to any one group or any one political party.  They are common principles.  They are American principles.  No matter who we are — young, old, rich, poor, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled or not — these are the principles we cherish as citizens of the United States of America.

They were guaranteed to us in our founding documents.  One of the signers of those documents was a man named Stephen Hopkins.  He was a patriot, a scholar, a nine-time governor of Rhode Island.  It’s also said he had a form of palsy.  And on July 4, 1776, as he grasped his pen to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence, he said, “My hand trembles.  But my heart does not.”  My hand trembles.  But my heart does not.

Life, liberty,  the pursuit of happiness.  Words that began our never-ending journey to form a more perfect union.  To look out for one another.  To advance opportunity and prosperity for all of our people.  To constantly expand the meaning of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  To move America forward.  That’s what we did with the ADA.  That is what we do today.  And that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow — together.

These civil rights are not just all about access but as the President said it is about equality – the ADA is civil rights of ensuring accessible means to be treated as equals!

The President also said in a 30 second PSA on the ADA’s 20th Anniversary (and can be seen on the disability.gov website) that:

“Today, about one in five Americans is living with a disability, over 50 million people, including many of our friends and neighbors, teachers and co-workers, heroes and leaders. Twenty years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteed every person the right to live, work and participate fully in the American experience. We’ve come a long way since then and we are committed to make even more progress in the years ahead. Visit disability.gov to see how you can help.”

Is Hollywood and the Hollywood dream of being an actor, writer, director, becoming a big movie star, part of the “American experience”? Is it one that those with a disAbility can “participate fully” in?

Hollywood history, even the most recent history as described above in the movies and television of the past year, shows that even in the limited roles that feature a paraplegic or another person with a disAbility, that it will be written, directed, and acted by someone, anyone other than a person with the same or similar disAbility as the one being portrayed. Despite the ADA signing 20 years ago and the only industry study on those with a disAbility, published by SAG over 5 years ago, that detailed the incredible industry-wide discrimination along with many recommendations to help end the discrimination that SAG itself has tried to push forward but have basically all been ignored. So what is the incentive for any person with a disAbility to even dream, let alone attempt to work in Hollywood?

Despite the incredible odds for anyone to come and make it in Hollywood, let alone a minority, or a minority that is not often hired to portray and represent themselves such as those with a disAbility, some of us have the exact same passions and dreams that our able bodied counterparts have and we have to try and express our art and hope it will be seen beyond our disAbility.

And honestly I do it because in addition to my passion and talent as a screenwriter, director, and overall filmmaker, I do it for all those with a disAbility who love watching movies and television and would be empowered by having an honest, genuine, and authentic voice, vision, and performance that would represent and provide them their own heroes!

So kids like these posing with one of the beautiful members of the wheelchair dance troupe “Chairlie’s Angels” that performed earlier at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Celebration of the ADA at Dodger Stadium:


Will not have Hollywood force the representation of a guy disrespecting their disAbility by saying it is not that significant and that is why any actor can fake it:

Kevin McHale the actor faking he is disAbled to play the part of paraplegic character “Artie” on “Glee” at the advanced screening of “Glee” episode 9, “Wheels”.

Sam Worthington the actor hired to fake the minority status of being a paraplegic for the lead character in “Avatar”

Instead those kids and all people with a disAbility can have and expect these actors who do NOT fake a minority status and a very significant identity factor such as a disAbility:

Zack Weinstein – was hired for a small, one-time part on “Glee” episode 18, “Laryngitis”. Zack did a great job (clips that included his scenes are on his website that you can access by clicking on his name above) but I cannot help to speculate as to the reasons why the producers of “Glee” did hire an actor for this role who authentically represents those with a disAbility and it is most likely in response to protests over the controversy of hiring Kevin McHale for the regular role of a paraplegic. Regardless of the motives – at least they did hire him and Zack did a great job acting and singing in the role! Zack also just announced that he has just been hired to play a guest starring role in one upcoming episode of the popular CBS Network television series, “NCIS”! I congratulate Zack and praise the producers, directors, and all others responsible for hiring on “NCIS”.

Daryl “Chill” Mitchell – a working and established actor before a motorcycle accident in 2001 caused a spinal cord injury that paralyzed Daryl. He has done some work since including the Fox network show “Brothers” that also debuted in the 2009 television season. Unfortunately, the show has been canceled for low ratings – which I am sure is not because of the authentic actor who is a wheelchair user. But I still wanted to highlight Daryl, who is a fantastic actor, and applaud the Fox Network for making this show and hiring an actor who is not faking a disAbility.  

Brock Waidmann – is a performer with a disABility and active wheelchair user, has been hired to play the role of “Zeke” on the upcoming NBC Network television series, “The Paul Reiser Show”, coming this mid-season in January 2011! NBC has ordered 6 episodes of the show and hopefully it will be a ratings success and be picked up for more! I will be doing a more in depth blog entry on this show in the near future! Meanwhile, Brock has announced on his Facebook page that he is going on other auditions. Wish you the best of luck, Brock!

These are just those with recent or soon-to-be National recognition. They are also those who are wheelchair users. There are many more actors with all types of a disAbility that are working, such as RJ Mitte who authentically represents a supporting character with Cerebral Palsy on the successful AMC cable television series, “Breaking Bad” (which a specific applause should be given to series creator and primary writer, Vince Gilligan for creating and casting this role), or those trying to work in the entertainment industry. And one place to locate information on Performers with a disAbility and the issues of those with a disAbility in entertainment is the actor’s unions (SAG, AFTRA, AEA) that came together to create the IAMPWD – stands for “Inclusion in the Arts and Media for Performers With Disabilities”! But despite even the awesome power of these three labor union’s combining forces for this campaign that has been going on for almost 2 years – and the other positive signs in television such as those highlighted above – some major movie producers, writers, such as Bryan Singer – it is business as usual – regardless of how morally wrong or offensive it is to those living with a disAbility of hiring able bodied actors to fake representing that they have a disAbility such as employing able bodied actor James McAvoy in the role of paraplegic character Charles Xavier in the upcoming blockbuster prequel, “X-Men: First Class”.

I hope the future allows for more inclusion and that when those with a disAbility are included in movies and television that it is more than just on paper and we can also be included in the representation of those portrayals. Will it take another 20 years of ADA civil rights law for treating those with a disAbility with basic human rights as equals for Hollywood to change the standard for portraying and representing a character with a disAbility with the same respect as all other minorities representing themselves? I hope the examples of Daryl, Zack, Brock, and many other individuals, and organizations such as SAG and the Tri-Union’s IAMPWD campaign, are the beginning of a real and honest sustaining change in Hollywood – but it has to go a lot further – as the President said about the ADA, we still have a lot more to do! Then hopefully someday these examples are common, they become the standard instead of the exceptions to authentic representations in portraying characters with a disAbility! I have said it before and will say it again, I know where we can make what history will record as a significant “turning point” in American cinema! Ah, but what do you care, right?

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