By Melissa Blake

Much like their founder, Norman Lear, the Media Access Awards have been ahead of its time.

A 1977 episode of his sitcom “Maude” featured a character who had suffered a stroke. The story and the audience’s reaction touched him profoundly. He later went on to cast comedian Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, in a recurring role on “The Facts of Life.” She was the first person with a disability featured as a regular on a major sitcom.

It was Jewell who inspired Lear, together with producers Fern Field and Norman G. Brooks, to create the Media Access Awards (MAA). “She did standup and she was so funny,” remembers Lear.

“We were finding our way,” he says of those early days, “but the needs were the same since the beginning: to entertain and inform.”

Lear says it was important to him that the disability community was represented onscreen in ways that were “accurate, inclusive and multifaceted.”

After a brief hiatus, producers Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker revived the awards in 2010 and, this year, formed an important partnership with Easterseals.

“The Media Access Awards is the gold standard in celebrating inclusion best practices, and we look forward to being a part of its continued success,” said Easterseals Southern California president and CEO Mark Whitley.

Today the MAA covers new media as well as film and TV, and has backing from the guilds and other industry orgs.

Even in 2018, despite strides made in disability representation, the MAA remains an important event, especially as a vehicle for highlighting a vast pool of talent that isn’t being used enough and to show the importance of inclusion, says Calla.

“We get to see people with disabilities as human beings, and to reflect the world as it is — with all colors of the rainbow,” she says.

Collectively, the awards are bringing new energy and relevance to inclusion in Hollywood, helping the industry accurately portray society. Talent-competition show impresario Simon Cowell, who received the 2018 Media Access Visionary Award, says the honor “is probably the best award I’ve received in my entire career.”

This year’s awards reflected the growing number of storylines and acting opportunities for PWD — more than ever before. In addition to Cowell’s kudos, CJ Jones received the SAG-AFTRA Harold Russell Award; seven producers of SundanceTV’s “This Close” shared the PGA George Sunga Award; and “A Quiet Place” writers Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and John Krasinski were honored with the WGA West Evan Somers Award."

“This Close” and “A Quiet Place” reflect one of the goals of the MAA: to show people as more than their disability.

“We learn to live in society through what we see in media — in TV, film and on the web,” says Calla. Rucker adds that it’s important for scribes to write full, complex characters “who happen to have a disability,” but that disability is not the sole focus of the storyline.

“In the future, we foresee a broadcast show to share with Americans and inspire the world on the potential of this very vibrant community,” Calla says. “We are also positioning ourselves with the support of Easterseals to be a referral and advocacy organization as well as a workshop for producers and mentors for the community.”

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Twitter: @MediaAccess4All