Los Angeles - The Hollywood Disabilities Forum, held on October 24 at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, served as a high-visibility reminder that people with disabilities are a significant part of our society – as much as 20 percent of the U.S. population by some estimates – yet people with disabilities remain “virtually invisible” in media portrayals on screen and stage.
“It’s crucial for all of us – actors, writers, directors, producers, casting associates – to come together to examine these problems and create solutions,” said Robert David Hall, master of ceremonies and national chair of the Tri-Union Performers with Disabilities Committee. “I always think of the little kid that needs to see for him or herself, their own image reflected. To be marginalized, to be cut out of mainstream TV, movies and advertising stinks, and we’re trying to change that.”
The forum was sponsored by I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities), a civil rights campaign by the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, Actors’ Equity Association Tri-Union Performers with Disabilties Committee, the Writers with Disabilities Committee of the Writers Guild of America West and Alliance for the Inclusion in the Arts, with assistance from the California Arts Council, the National Arts and Disability Center at UCLA and the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “The mission of the committee is to enhance the status and promote the advancement of actors with disabilities in an industry that, too often, denies access, stereotypes or disregards people with disabilities. This is why the themes of Access, Inclusion and Accuracy are so important and emphasized throughout the I AM PWD campaign,” said Rebecca Yee, national director/senior counsel of SAG Affirmative Action & Diversity.
For the morning session, I AM PWD presented an Actors Master Class featuring actors with disabilities performing seven well-known five-minute scenes for critique and direction from Master Teachers Howard Deutch, Bill Duke and Paul Kampf. The Master Teachers were identified and chosen to participate due to their many successful and noteworthy years as a director, producer and actor. April Webster from April Webster & Associates auditioned and casted the following fifteen actors with disabilities to perform the following scenes:
Jesus Hopped the “A” Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis, featuring actors Malik B. El-Amin and Teal Sherer
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, featuring actors Stuart Nisbet and Diana Elizabeth Jordan
Election by Alexander Payne, featuring actors Eugene Feldman and Michelle Marks
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, featuring actors Danny Murphy and John Siciliano
The Graduate by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, featuring actors Christopher Imbrosciano and Kerry E. Walsh
A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard, featuring actors Allison Gray, Luce Rains and Kurt Yaeger
Light Sensitive by Jim Geoghan, featuring actors Steve Gladstone and Ann Colby Stocking
In the afternoon, Writer-producer Peter Farrelly served as the keynote speaker. He created, along with his brother Bobby, such hit films as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and The Ringer. In his remarks, Farrelly referenced the old riddle about a father and son who are in a car accident, taken to separate hospitals, and a doctor at the son’s hospital says, “Oh my god, that’s my son!” The riddle is: how can that be? For those familiar with the riddle, the doctor is, of course, the boy’s mother. It’s a classic example of how unconscious bias can creep in when we think of what a person can or cannot be in life. But times are changing, as Farrelly shared with the audience that he asked his 6-years old daughter the same riddle, and she responded, “because the doctor is the boy’s mom.” Farrelly suggested that we together must change this antiquated landscape for people with disabilities. “The perception that we are fighting here is the exact same thing,” he said.
Top Row: David Milch, Dr. Olivia Raynor, Linda Bove, Robert David Hall, Vince Gilligan and Peter Farrelly
Bottom Row: Janis Hirsch, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, Allen Rucker, Margaret Nagle and RJ Mitte
Later in panel discussion, Farrelly talked about the fine line he walks by featuring and casting performers with disabilities prominently in his irreverent comedies. He said persons with disability were a part of his world growing up, so it made sense to him to feature them. But he admitted that when the writing is edgy, it’s sometimes harder to get the tone right, and occasionally people will get offended, despite the best intentions.
Actor Daryl “Chill” Mitchell and consulting producer Janis Hirsch talked about their new sitcom Brothers on Fox Television. On the new comedy, Mitchell plays a disabled restaurant owner who shares management responsibilities with his ex-pro football player brother.
Because the networks in general feature so few disabled persons in leading roles, Mitchell, Hirsch and the other panelists let the audience know the importance of writing letters to make sure inclusive shows like Brothers remain on the air.
Others who participated in the panel included moderator Allen Rucker, chair of the WGA West Writers with Disabilities Committee; Linda Bove, activist for the deaf community, best known as Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street; Vince Gilligan, series creator of Breaking Bad; David Milch, creator of Deadwood; Margaret Nagle, writer of the Emmy-winning HBO movie Warm Springs; Olivia Raynor, director of the Tarjan Center at UCLA, which focuses on promoting excellence in the disabled community; R.J. Mitte, star of Breaking Bad; and Danny Woodburn, best known for his role as Mickey on Seinfeld.
The keynote introduction was provided by actor Geri Jewell. I AM PWD and WGAW Writers with Disabilities Committee also made video presentations. The Office and Extras creative team Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant provided light-hearted remarks via video. And Kareem A. Dale, special assistant to President Obama on disability policy, gave words of support from the administration via phone.