Media Access Awards

cameraWell-known writers, producers, directors and stars gathered at Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton Hotel to pay tribute to their colleagues, programs, production companies and corporations at the 16th Media Access Awards of the California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons. The event honors entertainment industry professionals who have helped eliminate stereotypes by accurately portraying persons with disabilities and who have increased employment opportunities for professionals with disabilities in the entertainment industry.

The awards are presented in such categories as feature films, television, theater, commercials, print advertising and documentaries. In addition four honorary awards are presented: The Governor's Award of Excellence - which this year is presented for a Consumer Product to Mattel, Inc. for Share a Smile Becky the doll in a wheelchair; the Harold Russell Award which will be presented to actor Robert David Hall; the WGAW Joan Young Memorial Award goes to writer/producer David Balkan; and the Michael Landon Award to Wendy Riche, Executive Producer of the daytime dramas General Hospitol and Port Charles.

The fact that we have so many diverse entries of such extraordinarily high quality is in itself an incredibly achievement. When we got started twenty years ago there were no disabled people depicted in the media explains USA Network television executive Fern Field, co-founder with her late husband, producer Norman G. Brooks, and this year's eventco-chair with TV personality Meredith MacRae and producer Loreen Arbus, whose parents founded United Cerebral Palsy when one of her sisters was born with CP. Unlike Arbus who had a personal connection and interest in the disability issue, Field became involved by accident. As a result of research she was doing for her then boss, Rod Parker—then Executive Producer of Maude and his boss, Norman Lear Field came into contact with the South Bay Mayors' Committee for Employment of the Handicapped. The encounter resulted in a featurette that Field co-produced and directed titled A Different Approach. It was a ground-breaking film which won national and international acclaim including an Oscar nomination. It also coincidentally marks Michael Keaton's first film appearance. It was at that time that Field was asked to speak at a Governor's Committee meeting in Sacramento. During the q & a session that followed her talk she was confronted by what she describes as "this gorgeous, sexy guy in a wheelchair" who accused: "You people in the media are always coming around and exploiting us (it was the time of The Men and Coming Home and a number of disabled vets had been employed in both films) and then we never see you again. Would you be willing to serve on a task force?" he asked. At the time Field didn't have a clue what he was alluding to so she suggested they talk after the meeting at which time Peter Arballo explained to her that Americans with disabilities were the great invisible minority. "We're locked up in back bedrooms," he explained. "You never see us on television or in films or commercials as a part of normal life—just occasionally in some hospital film or something like that." Field thought about it and realized he was right. She was also aware of the militant movement and the activists that were occasionally making headlines by chaining themselves to bus stops and inaccessible buildings. She explained to Arballo that while she believed those people were necessary to help open doors, break down barriers and forge a path—that was not her style. She suggested going to the entertainment industry, presenting the problem to them and asking for their advice and help in rectifying the situation. Arballo agreed and it was determined they would conduct a series of workshops and panels for the industry in conjunction with the next quarterly meeting of the Governor's Committee. When she returned to LA from Sacramento newly attuned to the needs of the people with disabilities—she discovered that her employer Norman Lear had in fact dealt with a number of disabilities on his various sit-coms: diabetes and mental retardation on One Day at a Time; paralysis due to stroke on Maude; deafness on The Jeffersons; blindness on Apple Pie, etc. She decided to invite Lear to participate on one of the panels. Enroute to his office to do this, she ran into Barbara Brogliatti, head of PR for Lear's production company at the time and mentioned that she was about to invite Norman Lear to the Governor's Committee dinner meeting. "Oh," she asked "are you giving him an award?" It hadn't occurred to her but Field immediately thought what better way to insure someone's attendance at an event. "Of course we are," she exclaimed without skipping a beat. Thus the Media Access Awards were born and the journey that began twenty years ago took its first step honoring such industry notables as Lear and Jerome Helman and Hal Ashby(producer and director of Coming Home. That year Field also was presented with a Outstanding Contribution Award from the Governor's Committee in recognition for her efforts on their behalf. It soon became evident to Field and Arballo that raising consciousness in the entertainment industry was not something that could be done once a year. By the second Media Access Awards the dream of a Media Access Office was taking shape. In addition new honorees were helping to raise consciousness among the viewing public. Gary Marshall and Henry Winkler were among award recipients for an incredible episode of Happy Days with guest stars Linda Bove (a deaf actress) and Richard Masur (current president of the Screen Actor's Guild) as the boy who gets the girl in spite of competition from the legendary "Fonz". It was also at the 2nd Media Access Awards that Field's husband, Norman Brooks took Geri Jewell (a comedienne with cerebral palsy) and introduced her to Norman Lear.

He had thoroughly enjoyed Geri's stand-up routine and when he met her he suddenly turned to Charlotte Rae who was sitting beside him and currently starring in the first season of The Facts of Life and said "Geri should be in THE The Facts of Life". Field was thrilled at the prospect only to be devastated when she talked to the producers of the show and learned that they did not yet have a pick-up. Fortunately for all concerned, NBC did pick up the show (it went on for 13 years), Geri Jewell was cast as "Cousin Geri", the first performer with a disability to be hired in a recurring role on a prime-time network series and not only Hollywood began to change. Field remembers one day about a year after Geri first appeared on the show she popped in to her office. "Got a minute," Geri asked. "Sure, "said Fern, "sit down."

"You know," continued Jewell "being on The Facts of Life has changed my life," she said. Sure, thought Field, she's getting a steady pay check— now she can pay the rent. But Field remained silent and waited for Geri to continue, which she did. "All my life there's been only one thing that bothered me about having cerebralpalsy..." She stopped for a beat and Field waited. Then Geri looked up at her..."Children have always been afraid of me. But since I've been on the show— whenever I'm walking on a street or am in a shopping mall children come over and ask 'Aren't you Cousin Geri' and we sit and talk." Field smiled as she contemplated not only how being on the show had changed Geri's life. Field was thinking about how having Geri Jewell on The Facts of Life had changed the lives of all those children across the country who had seen the show and now were no longer afraid of a young woman who had cerebral palsy. She realized all the hard work was beginning to pay off. Television was on the right path. It was time to take on the advertising industry. "Are you crazy?" they asked the Committee members who suggested that people with disabilities be included in commercials. "We can't put someone in a wheelchair in a commercial" said the advertising executives. "No one will notice the product. All they'll remember is 'that commercial with the wheelchair in it". So, for the 3rd Media Access Awards Field and her colleagues produced their own: Hard as Tracks Wax starring Anne Meara promoting a wax that protected floors against wheelchair and crutch scuff marks; Black & Wrecker Tools for the single or double amputees; and Conserve Energy starring Conrad Bain promoting the employment of blind people to conserve electricity (it was the 80's and energy was at a premium). However it wasn't too many years later that Field and her husband, Norman Brooks, grinned at each other when they spotted a large cereal box on a supermarket shelf. There for all the world to see on the front of Wheaties—Breakfast of Champions was a wheelchair basketball player! Today Field beams "there are extraordinary commercials and print ads including people with disabilities. Some of them like the Air Touch Cellular commercials with visually impaired Rick Boggs as their spokesperson, or the GM 'Just Doors' print ad simply take your breath away—and they're not even about disability." Field is convinced that endeavors like the Media Access Awards and the Media Access Office of the California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled persons have helped create the climate for change that was necessary to enable some of the changes that followed these early endeavors: the casting of a young actor (Christopher Burke) with Down Syndrome as a regular on ABC's dramatic series Life goes On (and this season is appearing on Touched by an Angel); the selection of a hearing impaired Miss America; the regular depiction of people in wheelchairs in the Sears catalog; and the emergence of modeling agencies(like The Shot Agency) focusing exclusively on models with disabilities.

Field admits "a lot of progress has been made and many people think the job has been done. Auditioning actors with disabilities is no longer the unheard of thing it was in the late 70's and early 80's. There is a law,the Americans With Disabilities Act, that makes it illegal to discriminate against the disabled. And it's easier to get into most buildings and a lot of buses.""But," she continues "you only have to look at a couple of this year' sentries to know that much of the work is just beginning. There's an interview with an employer in an episode of NBC's Dateline hosted by John Hockenberry which boggles the mind. The employer is obviously so prejudiced that finally Hockenberry, who's right there in the room with the man, has to say "Are you aware that you're talking to somebody in a wheelchair? The employer nods and simply continues to voice his ideas about the limitations of people with disabilities which compels Hockenberry to ask if the man realizes Hockenberry has spent most of his professional career as a foreign correspondent - but this man just doesn't get it! It's truly amazing and simply underscores how much more work there is to be done.

Media Access Awards: 310 823-8611.


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