Allen Rucker — Stuck At The Starting Line

Circa 2007

Just about the time that this arrives in your mailbox, the Los Angeles-based Media Access Awards will be presenting its silver anniversary show. At the annual event, trophies are handed out for outstanding performances by actors with disabilities, or for TV and film work that portrays the disability community powerfully and accurately.

What? You’ve never heard of the Media Access Awards? You’ve heard of the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, the Latin Grammys, the NAACP Image Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards and the Razzies (Golden Raspberrys), but the MAA’s don’t ring a bell? Twenty-five years and you’ve never seen one gushy backstage story about them on Entertainment Tonight?

Therein lies a huge problem about the visibility of those with disabilities, not just in Hollywood, but in life. In fact, America, Hollywood and real life have a lot in common. Why do you think all of those people are lined up to get on American Idol or The Biggest Loser? Because, in this country, if you’re not on TV, you may not exist. Or, conversely, if you are on TV, your life has meaning and your friends will have something to say at your funeral. “Bill was a wonderful bowler. Who can ever forget the time he didn’t win a dime on Wheel of Fortune? He was sure Mr. Big Head after that. He often said that high-fiving Pat Sajak was his proudest moment…”

Well, if media acknowledgment is the way that you gauge your worth as a human being, then the disabled are screwed. They—or should I say we—are barely a blip on the big, flat screen of American reality. We are invisible. In gross media terms, we don’t exist. Hell, guys with three wives get more love on TV than the disability community, and though we can all admire, if not envy, a man with that kind of erectile function, there certainly aren’t 50-plus million of them to draw upon for story material. Who knows if there are even 50, and yet they’ve got their own show on HBO.

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Hard, cold statistics underscore how few fictional characters with disabilities actually show up in American TV and film. Among the people in Hollywood who care, these pathetic stats are scripture by now. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) commissioned a study in 2004 to see exactly how many characters with disabilities popped up on any screen in that year. The indefensible bottom line: less that one-half of one percent (.005) of all speaking characters in American film and TV were disabled. In other words, roughly one-sixth of the American public is portrayed .006th of the time.

These are not the high-profile celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s or Teri Garr, who has MS. These are fictional characters, made up by writers and producers who have a lot of leeway to make up whatever they want. Why don’t they make up more characters with disabilities? Most likely because it doesn’t cross their minds, and because the people that they might pattern these characters after are—you got it—invisible!

It’s probably not a grand conspiracy of bigotry and criphating at work here. It’s more likely a conspiracy of laziness and force of habit. Even for those creators who think to include a character with a disability in their soap opera or buddy movie, it’s a big damn deal. It’s a lot like what writing in an African-American next-door neighbor must have been like in the 50’s—a bold, courageous statement to the world that you cared.

Almost every time a central character is disabled in a major film or TV show, it gets a big award. Rain Man. Born on the Fourth of July. My Left Foot. All welldeserved, of course, but the story’s focus on the impaired and damaged certainly didn’t hurt, if only for the novelty factor.

The disability community is so invisible in Hollywood, I’ve come to discover, that it doesn’t even count among the people who feel left out of the system aka the diversity crowd. Last May, at a press conference, the Writers Guild presented the Hollywood Writers Report, its latest survey of who gets all the writing jobs in Hollywood. I was there, along with my writer friend, Ronnie Konner, waiting to hear how writers like us have been criminally ignored and marginalized, so I could spend the rest of the day pumped with righteous indignation. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to get my juices flowing because, in an exhaustive rundown of 50 pages of findings, writers with disabilities were never mentioned. Not once!

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Over-40 writers, women writers, black writers, Hispanic writers, Asian writers, gay and lesbian writers—they were all present and accounted for, and had been since the first such report seven or eight years ago. But only in 2007, at the end of this press conference, did they announce that—next year—writers with disabilities will be added to this underrepresented universe. Next year, it seems, 18 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we will finally make it to the starting line.

Why are things this way? Hell if I know. It probably has something to do with long lingering superstitions about the vitality and reliability of the disability community. Or maybe because Hollywood is essentially a high school for grown-ups where friends hire friends, and the posse of actors and writers with disabilities has yet to be admitted into the clique. Or maybe it’s because most Hollywood product is fluffy, fantasy crap, made for teenagers and adult teenagers to escape into a Paris Hilton wet dream, and who wants some guy with a prosthetic leg, let’s say, hobbling through their wet dream?

It’s depressing, actually, but as Tony Soprano would say, “Hey, whadda ya gonna do?” In the grand Hollywood entrepreneurial tradition, you just keep pitching ideas, schmoozing with power brokers, and searching for a small crack in the monolith. Or maybe the more than 50 million disabled Americans will rise up spontaneously, storm Fox Studios, kidnap Bill O’Reilly (just for kicks), and demand that for every five characters in a movie or TV show, at least one of them must be disabled. Also no one in the room can call that character a hero or a victim.

Hey, dream on, brother.

by Allen Rucker

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