AWAKENING TO A VAST ASSET
HOLLYWOOD IS REALIZING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE A DAZZLING TALENT POOL — AND A HUGE UNDERSERVED MARKET
By Louise Duff
Hollywood is slowly awakening to a valuable resource and talent pool: people with disabilities.
The industry is always looking for unique stories from unheard voices. Hollywood is also seeking new sources of income. People with disabilities help solve both problems.
“Diversity is good for business, from the employment standpoint, but also to reach an untapped market,” says Easterseals Southern California president and CEO Mark Whitley. “Recent estimates show people with disabilities represent a market of more than $21 billion annually. The disability community is 61 million strong, and they represent 25% of the country. That’s a huge market and a huge opportunity. Nike, Target, Toyota, Microsoft: They are using significant marketing power, to target the disability community more and more.”
The success of works like “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Good Doctor” show niche-themed stories can tap into crossover audiences.
Whitley adds, “People with disabilities are significantly under-represented. The industry has the power to give them a voice — and it’s time for this to happen.”
Like other minority groups, people with disabilities are still searching for equal opportunities. There are several reasons for that, but at their heart the challenges revolve around stigma and misperceptions about disability.
“The power of entertainment is its ability to influence, inspire and shift people’s perceptions, to advance social change. But because we rarely see characters with disabilities in storylines, it’s easier to stereotype and marginalize,” adds Whitley. “Someone told me their theory about why more people with disabilities aren’t included in film and television: Hollywood is afraid of not getting it right.”
The effects of these misinformed stereotypes play out several ways. If there is an opening for a sound technician, for example, an exec may think, “I can’t hire a blind person!” and end the conversation there, without considering that a blind sound tech might be perfect for the job.
Actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, believes his CP has been an asset for him — and not just because it helped him win the role of Walter White’s son on “Breaking Bad.”
“I find disability is a magical thing when it comes down to what we are and what we can do,” says Mitte, “because when you think you’re at your limit is when you find new limits.” He remembers months in the hospital as a boy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy: “Those treatments and those classes taught me how to handle myself and how to work with other people.”
“With people with disabilities you don’t often hear, ‘That guy’s really fake,’” says Mitte. “They are who they are. Their disability made their personality stronger.”
Mitte has had his battles to fight in the business. After “Breaking Bad,” he says, he was offered a lot of “drooling parts.”
“Severely disabled; big budget,” he says. “I had to respectfully decline a lot of them. I’m not going to go drool on camera. That’s not what I want to represent with my characters,” In fact, there are signs of progress around the industry; such stereotyping seems to be ending, and accurate representation of people with disabilities is increasing.
One of the leaders is David Shore, the creator and showrunner of Sony TV-ABC’s “The Good Doctor.” The series centers around Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon who is on the autism spectrum. It emerged as the top-rated new series in the 2017-2018 season.
Shore is actively working to help in all three areas of focus for PWD: He’s hiring them in key creative roles, such as writers; hiring them in below-the-line jobs; and depicting characters onscreen with disabilities. Mark Rozeman, who is a staff writer on “The Good Doctor,” is on the spectrum himself.
“People with disabilities have spent most of their lives confronted with limitations,” says Rozeman. “So by definition, they’re good at problem solving. And just as important: People in Hollywood are looking for new voices. By hiring someone who sees the world differently, you’re building a sense of uniqueness into that project.”
He is grateful for opportunities he’s been given, even as far back as elementary school: “Instead of saying ‘I don’t know how to deal with this,’ my teachers said, ‘How can we help him flourish?’”
Scott Silveri, creator of ABC’s “Speechless,” based the show on his own family’s experience; Silveri’s brother had cerebral palsy. Silveri not only cast an actor with CP, Micah Fowler, he has a PWD writer and consultants on staff.
“To have boots on the ground, people who have actually lived it — that perspective is invaluable,” says Silveri.
Via the Internet, a resource that didn’t exist when he was a boy, he found many families who’d had experiences similar to his own. “I wanted to pull out what’s unique to my family, what’s shared among families like ours,” he says. He linked up with online groups for families facing such issues. “I ended up backing into a bit of a community when I wasn’t even looking for one,” he says, “and that’s been [a] great unintended consequence of the show.”
Showrunners and executives who work with people with disabilities find that they don’t want quotas or special treatment. They just want the same opportunities as everyone else.
Many showbiz organizations have programs to help, but some argue that diversity fellowships don’t work, because people end up bouncing from one fellowship to another. Meetings with guilds and studio-network executives may help, but the real key is in talking about disabilities with writers, showrunners and executives in charge of hiring.
Actress Millicent Simmonds, who lost her hearing at 12 months old, has made a splash playing deaf characters in “Wonderstruck” and “A Quiet Place,” but so far has never played a film role opposite another deaf actor.
“I hope we’ll have more deaf actors and actresses,” she says. “I don’t want to be someone who says ‘I want more deaf people and more people with different disabilities and more diversity in Hollywood.’ I want it to actually become a reality.”
Last summer, actor-activist and Easterseals Southern California board member Nic Novicki addressed a room full of TV scribes at Variety’s annual Writers Room gathering.
Novicki asked every writer to include at least one character with a disability during the 2018-19 season. Novicki emphasized that the script doesn’t have to be centered on that topic: “Most of us don’t deal with our disabilities 24/7. Like everyone else, we just deal with everyday life, which is interesting enough. Just include us as characters.”
Casting director Pam Dixon is one of Hollywood’s trendsetters who has been bringing in PWD for years, with a successful creative payoff. Others on this honor roll include Silveri, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly and Ryan Murphy in the realm of scripted works, and Gay Rosenthal and Jonathan Murray on the reality TV side.
Rosenthal, a veteran of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” has produced such series as TLC’s “Little People, Big World” (319 episodes so far) and “Push Girls,” about a dynamic group of spirited women who use wheelchairs.
But when pitching the concepts, she quickly discovered these things at first made a lot of network executives uncomfortable.
“That’s why I wanted to do these series, so that people can become comfortable with this,” she says. “These are not shows about disabilities; they’re about human beings who happen to face some different challenges.”
Finding steady work in the industry is never easy for anyone, and to a PWD, there are also challenges of perception.
James Cude has been working 18 years as a film editor. His progressive sensorineural hearing loss has not been a handicap. Cude says, “I don’t see myself as disabled. I describe myself as hard of hearing. Each of us has something that is unique. This just happens to be my uniqueness.”
“Good Doctor” writer Rozeman says when he was in school, he was reluctant to talk about autism.
“Since I joined the show, I talk about it more; I want to pay it forward. But even now, I worry that people will think I’m an ‘autistic writer’ and that’s all I can do. It’s an important part of who I am, but I don’t want that to be my single defining trait. I’m a lot of things. I’m Hispanic, a Southerner, a liberal, I consider myself a Christian; in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘I contain multitudes!’ ”
Shore from “The Good Doctor” adds, “I don’t think it’s just Hollywood. The unemployment rate for people with autism, for example, is appalling. They’re capable of so much, and we should make it possible for them to prove it.”
— Stephanie Prange and Emily Ladau contributed to this report.