PARK CITY, Utah – Diversity inclusion is seen in movie theaters and parking lots, in the wheelchair signs signifying spaces for disabled persons.
But diversity inclusion is missing from the big screen and the film industry behind it.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was created to guarantee that people with disabilities had the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. It requires alterations to buildings and the removal of barriers for those needing wheelchairs or other types of assistance to get around.
And while the public sees these improvements everywhere, the disabled population who work, or attempt to find work, still deal with barriers.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of the general population has some type of disability. Yet more than 70% of disabled persons remain unemployed at a time when America has an unemployment rate that is under 4%, the lowest general unemployment rate in decades according to the US Department of Labor.
How film can help with diversity inclusion
The Ruderman Family Foundation advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities. They believe the lack of visibility of disabled people on television and in movies adds to the high unemployment rate of that sector of the population. One way they’re hoping to change that is by partnering with the Sundance Film Festival to promote diversity inclusion.
Actor and disability rights activist, Danny Woodburn, says, “95% of the roles depicting disability are not going to people with a disability.”
“You wouldn’t see a white man playing Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Woodburn, who has dwarfism, is a 30-year veteran actor in television and film. He is perhaps best known as Kramer’s volatile friend Mickey Abbot on the NBC comedy series, Seinfeld.
He says he is still called to auditions in buildings that don’t have elevators.
Woodburn also cites the plight of Ali Stroker, a wheelchair user who just won a Tony for her performance in “Oklahoma.” There was no wheelchair accessibility backstage before she was cast in the role. Only audience members had disabled accommodation
Directors and producers hamper diversity inclusion
President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, Jay Ruderman, says the challenges are even stronger for disabled actors. He says that directors and producers see a person with a disability as a person that can’t work long hours, or do the same jobs in film, as can an able-bodied person.
In the February 13, 2019 podcast, All Inclusive, Woodburn tells Ruderman about the day he saw the breakdown for the film “Lord of the Rings.”
A breakdown is when the roles come out for a project and they explain what the role is and you know, they get into the specifics of the role. And then agents see these roles and then submit their clients on these roles. So a breakdown came down, the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And the breakdown specifically described how tall each actor should be. And at the end of the breakdown, there was a statement saying ‘no little people.’ And that really kind of bothered me because I feel like this mythology about those kinds of stories is born out of the actual interaction with actual little people in our history.
Woodburn says, “Research from the Ruderman Family Foundation shows the disabled community has $125 billion of discretionary money they could put into the entertainment economy.” He believes once the entertainment industry realizes how much buying power this sector has, they will begin to hire more disabled workers.
“This industry is more impactful of public attitudes and stigma than any other industry,” said Ruderman. “You see it in the rise of women and people of color being shown in the media. As well as acceptance of the LGBTQ community through shows like ‘Ellen’ and ‘Will & Grace.’
“Now it’s time for the disabled sector to be seen and accepted through the eyes of Hollywood,” he said.
Social Security may interfere with diversity inclusion
Many people need Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to help pay for medical costs associated with their condition. But those persons using SSDI cannot earn more than $15,150 per year, or they lose the benefit. And most cannot pay for housing, bills, grocery and medical costs on less than $26,000 a year.
So, if they earn too much by working, they lose the insurance that keeps them healthy.
Woodburn says some disabled writers must hide their earnings. They may get paid $25,000 for one big project, which will drop them from SSDI. But that project may be the only one they have for 3-years.
The message of diversity inclusion is being heard, by some
Meanwhile, Ruderman and his foundation are getting support from top Hollywood stars to improve diversity inclusion in the film industry. Woodburn cites his friend Bryan Cranston for his decision to play a wheelchair-bound person in the movie “The Upside.”
And while Woodburn understands the producers’ need to have a marquee name to make money, he doesn’t know why Cranston didn’t push for hiring others with disabilities.
Woodburn says he has since elicited a pledge from Cranston that he will insist that five disabled people be hired, as sound editors, writers, or actors, if he plays another character with disabilities.
Some in Hollywood already practice diversity inclusion
Peter Farrelly, of the Farrelly brothers’ fame says it was a “no-brainer” to include disabled characters in their films. He says “his best friend growing up was a paraplegic and they had two family friends with intellectual disabilities.”
Farrelly says he wants casting directors to get on board.
“When they see a script calling for the role of a girlfriend, it doesn’t say she must be able-bodied,” he says. “Let’s open it up. Get people with all sorts of disabilities to audition for the girlfriend.”
The Sundance Film Festival appears to be embracing the movement this year. One of the darlings of the 2020 Festival is the documentary “Crip Camp.”
Co-director, Jim LeBrecht, was born with spina bifida and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. He says, “traditionally, people break into the entertainment industry by tirelessly working 20-hour days, generally as interns.”
“How does someone who needs insurance do that? When people with disabilities need medications or consistent medical care, they can’t work as unpaid interns.”
And the Ruderman Family Foundation is now asking actors, directors, producers, and the American public to sign the Disability Inclusion in TV and Movies Pledge.
You can hear the entire conversation with Jay and Danny below on the Money Making Sense podcast.
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