Hollywood’s Diversity Push Has Left Out One Important Group

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Over the years, Marilee Talkington, who is legally blind, has repeatedly auditioned for TV shows featuring a character who is blind. But several times, the same thing happened. The part went to an actress who was not blind. 

“It’s a punch to the gut,” she said. “If you’re white and playing a person of color, do you know how offensive that is? We need to look at disability the same way.”

As Hollywood faces another reckoning over its lack of diversity, disabled actors are hoping this time they’ll be included in the conversation. Studios are under pressure to address racial and gender inequality. But the industry’s failure to create more disabled characters — and to cast actors with disabilities in those roles — has received much less attention.

People with disabilities represent about 20% of the U.S. population. Yet just 3% of regular characters on TV shows have a disability. Of the disabled characters on TV and streaming services, more than three-fourths were played by actors who don’t have the same disability, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation. Advocates say such casting decisions are insulting and take away opportunities from disabled performers.

Hollywood’s Diversity Push Has Left Out One Important Group

“Trying to find an authentically played disabled character on screen is like trying to find Waldo,” said Maysoon Zayid, a comedian who has cerebral palsy and has a recurring role on “General Hospital.” “I don’t think Hollywood can truly be considered inclusive until they stop the horrid practice of casting non-disabled actors to play visibly disabled roles.”

There are signs the industry is starting to change. Steve Way, a comedian who has muscular dystrophy, has a part on “Ramy,” a comedy on Hulu about a young American Muslim struggling with his faith. Talkington has a recurring role on the first season of “See,” a science fiction show on Apple TV+ in which the human race has lost the sense of sight. In December, Netflix ordered a second season of “Special,” a show starring Ryan O’Connell about a young gay man who has cerebral palsy. And in the upcoming film “The Eternals,” Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actress, will play Marvel’s first deaf superhero.

Yet all too often, advocates say, the roles of disabled characters are given to non-disabled actors like Bryan Cranston, who played a quadriplegic in “The Upside,” or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who played an amputee in “Skyscraper.” Over the years, Hollywood has frequently honored non-disabled actors portraying disabled characters with Oscars, from Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” to Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” 

Hollywood’s Diversity Push Has Left Out One Important Group

“Every single time a non-disabled actor is cast in a disabled role is a step backwards,” said Ryan J. Haddad, an actor who has cerebral palsy and plays a student on Netflix’s “The Politician.” “Before you even get to the audition process, you need to say ‘If I’m writing this character it will be played by a disabled actor and that’s it. There’s no other option.’”

Advocates say there would be financial and social benefits to having more actors with disabilities on screen. Disabled consumers represent a $1 billion market and putting more, better-written disabled characters on screen could help change cultural attitudes, just as “Will & Grace” and “Orange Is the New Black” are credited with shaping mainstream perceptions of LGBTQ issues.

Hollywood’s Diversity Push Has Left Out One Important Group

Some disabled actors are hopeful the Black Lives Matter movement will lead to more inclusion of all marginalized groups in Hollywood. Others remain skeptical, having seen people with disabilities overlooked during such initiatives before. “A couple years ago, when the Oscars put out that statement on diversity, disabled people were completely left out,” Way said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it happens again.”

For many disabled actors, Hollywood can be a difficult place to navigate physically. Studios lots are large and filled with steps and wires. Dressing rooms and audition sites are often not accessible by wheelchair. “There are times when I’m on an audition and I can’t get in the building,” Way said.

Non-disabled writers often fail to capture the nuances of living with a disability. Two years ago, Zayid sold a semi-autobiographical comedy series to ABC. But because it was her first TV show, she was assigned to work with a veteran head writer, who was neither disabled nor Muslim. The resulting script, she said, “was stereotypical, offensive and what the disability community calls ‘inspiration porn.’” The show was never made. “I am forever thankful, because it was awful,” she said. 

In January, the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based advocacy group, wrote an open letter calling for more casting of people with disabilities, signed by several major stars, including George Clooney and Olivia Munn. The group’s president, Jay Ruderman, has asked all the major U.S. media companies to pledge to audition and cast more performers with disabilities. So far, only CBS has agreed. 

“The fact that I can only name one corporate leader who has come forward and said ‘This is the right thing to do,’ is pretty sad,” Ruderman said.

In 2018, the Casting Society of America held an open casting call for hundreds of actors with disabilities. David Caparelliotis, a casting director on NBC’s medical drama “New Amsterdam,” said such outreach efforts are necessary because actors with disabilities can be hard to find on short notice. “They simply are not represented by talent agencies and managers as much as they should be,” he said.

Hollywood’s Diversity Push Has Left Out One Important Group

Gail Williamson, who does represent disabled actors at the talent agency Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, said the agency’s clients with disabilities have seen their earnings grow from $50,000 in 2013 to over $3 million last year. “In the last five years, I’ve seen more forward movement than in my first 25 years of doing this,” she said. Even so, she said, too few writers rooms include people with disabilities, leading to less authentic characters.

Advocates say there needs to be more well-rounded roles for actors that have little or nothing to do with their disabilities. “We need more stories that don’t just involve a disabled person wanting to kill themselves or lose their virginity,” Way said. 

Such portrayals can be done right. During the first season of Netflix’s “The Politician,” Haddad’s character only refers to his disability once. “It wasn’t the only reason I was there,” he said. “It was refreshing to just have my walker and be in the story and not have my arc be obsessively about cerebral palsy.”

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