People with Disabilities Fight to be Seen as Full Human Beings in Hollywood

Advocates for people with disabilities think it is time for them to be included in Hollywood’s push for more diversity both in front of and behind the camera.


Over the past two Hollywood awards’ seasons, high profiled actors have used their two minute acceptance speeches to exploit the lack of diversity in the industry. However, people with disabilities never seem to make the final draft. Although there has been a surge in motion pictures that explore issues regarding disabilities, most prominent roles are inaccessible to actors who live it day in and day out.

When Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy Awards, supported the #OscarsSoWhite movement, and when the Times released their list of 100 people who could help broaden diversity in the academy, African American women and the LGBT community were the sole representatives.

“If you’re going to discuss diversity, it has to be completely inclusive of the groups that really define diversity, not just a select group that is popular,” said actor Danny Woodburn. “It’s popular to say LGBT groups, women, people of color define diversity. It’s not so popular to say people with disability define diversity.”

The latest project that failed to buck this trend was Warner Bros.’ “Me Before You.” The hero of the adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ 2012 book of the same name is a banker who gets paralyzed after a car accident. The role went to the able-bodied Sam Claflin.

Talent agent Gail Williamson of Kazarian, Measures, Ruskin and Associates Talent Agency (KMR) founded Down Syndrome in Arts & Media (DSiAM) with the vision to represent actors and models with diverse disabilities. She has represented clients who have gotten their first break in TV shows such as “Parenthood,” “NCIS,” “Glee” and “American Horror Story” for KMR. Outside her professional life she has built DSiAM into a key career launcher for models and actors with disabilities. Aspiring talents upload a photo and rsum for opportunities to work as an actor or model.

“We’ve got them waiting, people who are trained, have done their homework and have credits, but they won’t open up the doors for them,” Williamson said about her 120 clients. “But my guys are never going to be able to come into the room with the experience that these other guys have, because it’s not awarded to them. Someone is going to have to see it in them.”

But the history of casting for roles that portray a disabled person doesn’t paint an optimistic picture, according to Adam Moore, director of diversity and inclusion for SAG-AFTRA. The disabled community and its advocates are seeing a trend that echoes the 1960s Hollywood tactic of “blackface,” where they would paint white actors’ faces black. The 21st century equivalent of blackface is to have an abled-bodied person get into a wheelchair or on crutches and play the role of someone living with a disability. People like Williamson and Moore face an uphill battle in cracking the elite Hollywood door for people with disabilities.

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