By Patricia E. Bauer
LOS ANGELES — A coalition of performing arts unions today announced the launch of a major disability rights campaign to increase visibility and employment opportunities for actors, broadcasters and performers with disabilities throughout the entertainment and news media.
At briefings in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Actors’ Equity Association said the campaign would work to reverse a history of exclusion and bring the world’s largest minority into the media mainstream.
“There is an alarming absence of people with disabilities in the media. We are virtually invisible,” said “CSI” regular Robert David Hall (above), who uses prosthetic legs as a result of an accident 30 years ago. Hall, who serves as chairman of the tri-union committee of performers with disabilities, told a news conference at SAG’s Los Angeles headquarters that he plays one of only three disabled characters in recurring television roles.
“Kids and adults with all kinds of disabilities need to see positive images of themselves, and the world at large needs to see PWDs (people with disabilities) as the intelligent, talented and passionate human beings that we are,” he said.
SAG president Alan Rosenberg drew parallels between this effort and campaigns for civil rights protections for racial and ethnic minorities, women, lesbian and gay people, and seniors.
“The time for change is now,” he said. “Discrimination has to be challenged loudly, with a global effort to educate the public to the lack of inclusion and universal access in the entertainment industry.”
The announcement of the disability rights campaign, known as Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), was timed to coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Among the campaign’s goals are equal access to employment for people with disabilities throughout the entertainment and news media; inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of entertainment and news media; and accurate and realistic media representations of people with disabilities.
It seeks to remove barriers that interfere with performers’ access to auditions and work, focusing on wheelchair access, sign-language interpretation and scripts in Braille or large print.
Rosenberg said the unions have been seeking to convince producers to consider actors with disability as part of the studios’ diversity programs, and to note the number of performers with disabilities in annual casting reports, as it does for women, seniors, and racial and ethnic minorities.
According to a 2005 UCLA survey commissioned by SAG, people with disabilities play fewer than 2 percent of characters on television, even though more than 20 percent of Americans live with a disability. Only one-half of one percent of words spoken on television are spoken by a person with a disability, the study found.
In a videotaped presentation, actor Ann Stocking said disabled characters have generally fallen into a narrow group of stereotypes: heroic fighters, pathetic victims, bitter narcissists or disfigured villains. “These damaging stereotypes perpetuate the myth that disabled people are not complex and surprising human beings, but instead are less capable, less valuable members of society,” she said.
“In reality, disabled people are just like everyone else. We’re mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers, doctors, politicians, athletes, actors — as well as heroes and villains.”
Organizers said barriers to access to auditions and workplaces was a frequent problem for performers with disabilities. Without elevators or ramps at casting directors’ offices, actors with mobility impairments frequently must perform auditions in parking lots or on sidewalks.
Tri-union committee member and organizer Linda Lutz, who attended the press briefing, said lack of access to auditions is a regular problem for her. “They’re not doing it deliberately, but it happens,” said Lutz, who had an established career as a character actress when a 1996 stroke left her with limited mobility. “I’m sure we could report them, but then we wouldn’t be called back — and our names would get around and other people wouldn’t call.”
The UCLA survey found that two-thirds of performers who needed accommodations in the workplace never sought them because they felt employers would be reluctant to hire people perceived as less capable.
Actors Linda Bove and Geri Jewell shared their experiences as people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. Bove, who is deaf, performed in sign language as a series regular on Sesame Street for more than 30 years. She said people who are deaf and hard of hearing need sign language interpreters in order to have full access to employment.
“Provide us with a sign language interpreter and the playing field is leveled,” she said through an interpreter. “Provide us with the same sorts of access that you provide others with disabilities — and there is no more disability.”
Jewell, a comic best known for her breakthrough role on “Facts of Life,” was the first person with a disability to have a role in a primetime series. She has cerebral palsy.
“The real disabilities in life are prejudice and hatred, abuse, hypocrisy, greed, and despair,” she said. “The more we become aware of what the real disabilities are, the more we will respect and honor and value all of us who have something to contribute in life.”
Spearheaded by the performing arts unions, the I AM PWD campaign is drawing support from a constellation of government agencies, nonprofits, and academic entities. Appearing at the Los Angeles event were Phyllis Cheng, director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.
Other supporters include California’s Media Access Office, Down Syndrome in Arts and Media, the Tarjan Center at UCLA, the National Arts and Disability Center at UCLA, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Braille Institute, the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, City of Los Angeles Department on Disability, Performing Arts Studio West, Disability Rights Legal Center, and the Writers Guild of America’s disability committee.
SAG president Rosenberg said it’s important to remember that disability is a natural part of the human condition. “We’re all either disabled, or we’re potentially disabled,” he said. “This initiative absolutely affects every single one of us.”
(Photo from iampwd.org)