To spark changes in television industry practices, a philanthropy challenged creators to audition and cast more actors with disabilities in the most recent pilot season.
When Scott Bakula and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell head out of their office, chatting, on CBS’S NCIS: New Orleans, the blocking looks familiar: it’s a traditional TV “walk-and-talk.”
Except Mitchell — who plays computer specialist Patton Plame — uses a wheelchair, the result of a paralyzing motorcycle accident in 2001. At the office driveway, which is too steep and narrow for Mitchell to navigate without tipping forward, Bakula — who stars as special agent Dwayne Pride — nonchalantly tilts the chair in a wheelie and they continue on their way.
“The producers decided they needed someone to be wisecracking, so they called me,” says Mitchell, who starred in and produced the 2009 Fox comedy Brothers. “It wasn’t about the wheelchair. It was about the wit and the sarcasm.”
Performing scenes without fanfare and being recognized for acting ability are precisely the goals of performers who, like Mitchell, have a disability — that is, if they can get hired at all.
While some 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability — defined as any condition that limits one or more of a person’s daily activities — in 2016, less than 2 percent of the characters in scripted television were disabled, and of those roles, only 5 percent were played by performers with a disability.
Besides Mitchell, disabled performers include Peter Dinklage, the Emmy Award–winning little person of HBO’s Game of Thrones; Micah Fowler of ABC’s Speechless, who has cerebral palsy; little person Meredith Eaton of CBS’s MacGyver and Gaten Matarazzo of Netflix’s Stranger Things, who has the genetic condition cleidocranial dysplasia, which affects bones and teeth.
Freeform’s Switched at Birth — whose cast included Deaf actress Marlee Matlin and hard-of-hearing actress Katie Leclerc — wrapped its five-season run this year. And at the CBS daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful, little person Danny Woodburn recently joined the cast.
They may soon have more company, thanks to efforts by disability activists and independent casting directors as well as diversity departments and casting directors at networks and studios.
The Television Academy, too, is on board. After this past June’s Academy Honors (which celebrates socially conscious programs), Speechless creator Scott Silveri received widespread media attention for his acceptance speech exhorting others to cast actors with disabilities. And at the 69th Emmys in September, Academy chairman Hayma Washington noted disability as one of the indicators of television’s inclusiveness.
“Inclusion is defining television more and more,” Washington said, in remarks from the stage of L.A.’s Microsoft Theater. “When it comes to issues of creed, color or disability, of sexual orientation or gender identity, the television community embraces you and the stories you choose to create. The face of creativity is changing.”
That assertion is embraced by longtime disability advocate Tari Hartman Squire, co-creator with Loreen Arbus — a writer-producer and fellow activist — of the Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 Collaborative (LCA2.0), which seeks to increase employment of persons with disabilities in front of and behind the camera, while also improving their portrayals on television and other media platforms.
“Media, particularly television, has the power to shatter myths or reinforce stereotypes,” Squire says. “When it comes to disability, that’s very powerful.” Change can’t come too soon for her or for Arbus, whose foundation funds the annual $10,000 Focus on Disability Scholarship, announced at the Television Academy Foundation’s College Television Awards.
“I always open my speeches with the same line,” Arbus relates. “‘Could I see through a show of hands if you know what is the largest minority in the world?’ It’s people with disabilities. Television is reaching everyone [through the internet]. We need to be inclusive. It’s an absolute scandal that less than 2 percent of characters have disabilities.”
LCA2.0 has its roots in a one-day summit hosted in 2010 by the Television Academy’s diversity committee and appropriately dubbed Lights! Camera! Access! The forum brought together leaders in the entertainment and disability communities as well as government officials like Hilda Solis, then secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Squire, via her EIN SOF Communications, subsequently joined forces with Arbus to seize the momentum of the summit and to help people with disabilities launch and fortify careers in entertainment and media.
The collaborative produces events in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, with discussions on how to carve out an industry career and activities such as résumé reviews, flash mentoring and job interviews. With the American Association of Advertising Agencies, it is developing the first employment and portrayals resource guide for advertisers looking to tap talent with disabilities.
Other collaborations include: “Stories About Us,” a campaign created by BBDO New York to solicit fiction by writers with disabilities; a customized curriculum for aspiring media professionals with disabilities by PolicyWorks; the Media Mentoring Opportunity Pipeline with Cornell University and the National Disability Mentoring Coalition; with Deaf Film Camp and Inclusion Films Workshop, increased career opportunities; plus a CBS News–LCA 2.0– DisBeat internship for college students with disabilities, now in its third year.
Perhaps the LCA 2.0 partnership with the widest potential impact on the television industry is the Ruderman TV Challenge, conducted with the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropy that advocates for the inclusion of persons with disabilities throughout society.
In a study published in July 2016, “The Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors with Disabilities,” the foundation reported those now-familiar, dismal statistics on characters and casting (Danny Woodburn coauthored the study with the foundation’s Kristina Kopić).
The foundation examined the frequency of casting actors with disabilities on the top 10 television shows and top 21 original streaming shows near the end of the 2015–16 TV season, and surveyed actors with disabilities about their experiences in television.
“We had begun to look at the issue of entertainment having an impact, of television having the ability to shape attitudes,” explains foundation president Jay Ruderman. “Ellen and Will & Grace had changed people’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community. We’d been in the practice of producing white papers. We reached out to Danny after he’d written a passionate piece for the Huffington Post.”
In November 2016, the foundation followed up the white paper with an L.A. event, the Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion, where actors and advocates addressed an audience with representatives of the studios, networks and guilds.
When Ruderman reached out to LCA2.0 for its next phase, Squire suggested a call to action that became known as the TV Challenge. In an announcement this past February, television content creators were asked to audition and cast more performers with disabilities for the 2017–18 pilot season.
“We talked about casting actors with disabilities for all roles, including ‘under fives’ [per SAG-AFTRA, no more than five lines of dialogue and fewer than 50 words],” Squire says. “That opens up the doors for newcomers with disabilities, for the nondescript roles that go to non-disabled performers — banker, teacher, judge, neighbor.”
The TV Challenge spent several months building awareness of its disability casting mission, through captioned videos, social media and email blasts to industry and disability entities, as well as events in Hollywood with CBS and the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors and at a disability panel at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas in May. A list of disability-related resources was also available on the foundation website.
Next came the data gathering — from sources including casting directors, agents and a survey of performers with disabilities — and then data analysis. The results of the performer survey were overwhelmingly negative.
One anonymous performer wrote: “I would still describe entry into TV/film acting for actors with disabilities as virtually impossible. If one only auditions a handful of times per year, it is difficult to build on the audition experience to improve one’s technique. The auditions become much more important, because one is aware the opportunity is very rare. Even the best actors would find it hard to work under those circumstances, yet we do. It is that much more frustrating when you do well, and they still cast a non-disabled actor.”
Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, wrote: “I was the first person with a visible disability ever to be cast in a primetime series, the role of Cousin Geri on the NBC sitcom The Facts of Life. I also received Emmy consideration for my role of Jewel on HBO’s Deadwood. In my career that goes back four decades, I have been sent out on fewer than 40 auditions.”
There were some positive comments as well.
An unnamed actress wrote: “In [HBO’s] Oz, I was hired as an everyday soccer mom, the wife of a man who needed a new kidney. The role had nothing to do with disability and, in fact, I was sitting the whole time, so no disability was even shown. A fine example of hiring a PWD [person with a disability] for a nondescript, non-specific role, simply because she was the right actor for the role, regardless of disability.”
This past September, the foundation released its results in “The Ruderman White Paper on the Challenge to Create More Authentic Disability Casting and Representation on TV,” coauthored by Kopić, Squire and Mitchell. The study reported that 151 pilots on 39 platforms — including broadcast, cable and streaming services — were cast during the 2017–18 pilot season.
The broadcast network hiring the most performers with disabilities for scripted shows was CBS, which hired actors with disabilities for 11 series and/or pilots; the leading cable network was HBO, with three; and among streamers, Hulu also led with three.
In addition, 20th Century Fox Television led in auditioning talent with disabilities, doing so for 14 of its 23 dramas and nine of its 13 comedies.
At CBS, under Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, executive vice-president of entertainment diversity, inclusion and communications for CBS Entertainment, the network had its own initiatives in place prior to the Ruderman TV Challenge. For one, the wording on casting breakdowns sent to agents was changed, according to Fern Orenstein, senior vice-president, talent and casting, for CBS Entertainment.
“The breakdown used to say, ‘Please submit all ethnicities,’” Orenstein explains. “Now it also says, ‘Please include people with disabilities.’”
In April, a CBS–LCA2.0 event dubbed “Disability Visibility Hollywood” drew at least 80 people, Smith-Anoa’i reports, including casting directors and human-resources executives. Out of that event, actress Dawn Grabowski, who uses crutches and a wheelchair, booked a role on S.W.A.T. The network also holds a diversity showcase for performers and sketch comedy writers over several evenings each January.
Fox, too, had had pre-Challenge initiatives. In 2015, its casting and labor relations departments organized a roundtable for actors with disabilities, which has led thus far to the casting of 16 performers, including Micah Fowler in Speechless. Another event is in the works.
“We’ve always encouraged our casting directors and producers to consider everyone for every role, as well as to create characters specifically for performers with disabilities,” says Sharon Klein, executive vice-president of casting at Fox Television Group. “We are absolutely committed to improving opportunities for these performers.”
The Ruderman TV challenge deliberately separated dramas and comedies, in part because comedies are usually shot on soundstages while dramas are more apt to use locations that producers assume — often wrongly — can present problems for actors with disabilities.
As Mitchell points out, “They have to get [crew] guys in and out of there. A lot of times, I use the sound cart that has rollers. We worked on Bourbon Street [in New Orleans], where they don’t have elevators in those old buildings. Sometimes the crew helped me with the steps. It’s not rocket science. If a ramp has to be built, it will be built.”
The TV Challenge has sparked some negative reactions, Jay Ruderman acknowledges. “A director came back at me that we were infringing on artistic freedom. It’s not about that, when you have less than 2 percent of characters with disabilities being shown.”
Overall, though, response has been positive. And there have been encouraging developments. Zach Anner, an actor with cerebral palsy cast on Speechless last season, was invited into the writers’ room this season on the ABC show.
Members of the Casting Society of America plan to invite performers with disabilities to an open house at their offices in the U.S. and Canada in January, according to Russell Boast, CSA vice-president and head of the CSA inclusion and diversity committee; the CSA is also creating a guide to disabled performers for casting directors.
Meanwhile, LCA2.0 is expanding its summits to Boston, Chicago, Orlando and Silicon Valley, among other locales. And at press time, the Ruderman Family Foundation is presenting an inclusion summit for Boston on November 19–20.
“Change isn’t going to happen overnight,” Ruderman says. “It will be incremental, season by season. I don’t think television should ever discount its impact on people’s lives — it has a big impact on how people see themselves. That should be front of mind at all times.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017