“There are no right or wrong answers. You’re here to represent all of the people who may think like you.” A focus group facilitator reassured a group of Hollywood insiders who are casting agents, writers and film-festival programmers. The nonprofit organization, RespectAbility, formed the focus group to try to better understand why people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of the population, yet account for fewer than 2 percent of characters on scripted TV in 2016*. Participants’ names were changed to encourage more candid responses.
Meagan (Facilitator) opened the discussion by asking “What are the biggest issues facing America?” Participants called out: health insurance, white supremacy, bigotry, North Korea, housing prices, fake news, partly-line politics, diversity and more. Meagan pressed more to discuss groups most affected by bigotry. The group responded with African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, people who don’t speak English, liberals, conservatives, LGBT, people with chronic illness and the elderly.
Going deeper into diversity, Meagan asked, “Is anyone getting it right?”
Marty: You see a lot of diversity in advertising.
Nate: I think everyone’s trying; people don’t want their kids to be bigots.
Zoe: And there are organizations out there like the Anti-Defamation League. They’re trying very hard to fight all discrimination, and other organizations, too.
Meagan: What organizations?
Choir: GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The ACLU (Americans Civil Liberties Union).
Tony: We did just have our first black president. Our first female major party nominee, so that’s progress since 1776.
Meagan: Do you look to Washington to lead on these issues?
Chorus: No. Not anymore.
Tony: A handful of members in the Senate and House are voices of reason and seemingly some have influence.
Marty: It depends on what I’m working on. In general, the show you’re working on really dictates your audience. I think a lot of networks don’t want to polarize their audience by going a certain way because they don’t want to lose viewership. Ratings count. I know networks want to diversify, but at the end of the day, it’s all about eyeballs on the screen.
Lindi: I don’t know. I feel if you look at some of the late night hosts, like Jimmy Fallon. He plays it very neutral, and that backfired on him. He lost a lot of viewers. And now he’s not nominated for an Emmy, which The Tonight Show has been every year. You look at Stephen Colbert, and he’s calling out Trump every night. And he’s not waiting until it airs. He’s putting it up online because it’s so important. And you see Colbert not being a character [as he used to], getting all these big guys like Scaramucci, calling them out, and not playing it safe. And he’s getting more viewers.
Sandy: I also think he has a different level of popularity coming into his show, which maybe has impacted his ability to maintain numbers. And I don’t necessarily think playing it safe means whitewashing something, but there are some tried and true things that seem to play well in front of audiences and things that don’t. I work in casting, and I have to [determine] if we’re hiring the best person for the best job. And we’re not supposed to discriminate because we’re hiring someone for a job. So, anti-discrimination, the law itself, ends up feeding into the choices we make. And we’re also making a creative choice at the same time.
Meagan: Let’s build on that for a second. So, what, if any role, does the entertainment industry have to play in discrimination, diversity, inclusion?
Marty: Not being afraid to cast people in certain roles. I just traveled down south to the Bible belt during election season with a black guy and an Asian guy; it was for a fishing show. But the network really wanted to reach out to Millennials, and I think it’s really paying off.
Zoe: The television networks and studios are trying. Every single show they cast they are trying to add some diversity, but sometimes a casting director will want someone who’s Latino [and settle for] ‘a third or fourth generation Latino.’ That may be so far from being Hispanic–
Meagan: Is that their way of ‘checking a box’?
Zoe: Yes. They openly admit that. Although in a theater piece recently, Snow White was played by an Asian person. It’s interesting.
Kendra: In theater you have more flexibility. You can have Shakespeare played by a bunch of difference races. In a film, it’s harder to get away with that.
Kendra: If people are supposed to be brothers [in film or on TV], they’re supposed to look like each other. But if you go to the theater, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves could be playing brothers…
Zoe: In film, they’d make them adopted brothers.
Meagan: So people are trying, is that what I’m hearing?
Tara: I find a lot of networks are asking us to bring them shows about some cultures and things we haven’t seen yet. They’re looking for the next Insecure or the next Atlanta, whatever that looks like. Beginning to expose these stories and bring them to light.
Meagan: So, diverse ideas.
Tara: And exposure of issues. What’s the next exposé? Where’s that article coming from, where can you option it, buy it, and adapt it.
Zoe: The O.J. [mini series] was so successful.
Meagan: So, with all of that happening, it might surprise you that there’s a new study from Dr. Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, showing that after measuring a decade of diversity in Hollywood, there’s only been a tiny bit of improvement for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, in terms of actual numbers.
Lindi: Are you talking about people being hired?
Meagan: People on screen. Cast members.
Sandy: I’ve seen a real change in the last two years, specifically. I feel there’s been an immense push for casting diversity, and movement towards it. So I have a feeling in the next two years, five years, or 10, we’re gonna be doing better. [For instance] Breakdown Services, which is the premier place for casting, have categories now for male, female, identifies as male, identifies as female, transgender—the latter only came about in the last few months.
Marty: Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and a few black actors have been able to break through on the film side of it, but with the TV stuff, and stuff that’s on Netflix, and Hulu, and Amazon is opening doors. I do think film is not fully representative of the diverse–
Sandy: That’s only if you count films coming out in major theaters, because I cast numerous films that are all African-American. I’ve done films in Chinese. If you go watch the film festivals, there’s been a real shift in what’s playing. At South-by-Southwest [in Austin, TX], the Best Actor in a film last year was African-American. There’s been a shift, but it’s recent.
Justin: There’s a lot more diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, in independent films. I program one of the top festivals in the country, and there are so many more diverse films cast with women, men of color, LGBT [in front of and] behind the camera, which you just don’t see in Hollywood. Thousands are being made every year.
Zoe: I think if you are a Caucasian actor that’s the hardest area to be in right now, because there’s huge competition.
Meagan: I hear race and gender, but I don’t think anyone’s mentioned disability.
Zoe: They are trying. Look at Speechless.
Marty: [The disability’s] gotta be written in. It just depends. There is a series on Netflix right now, Ozark, and they had a small role for a kid with Down syndrome.
Justin: I read about one of the characters on Breaking Bad. I highly doubt he was written into the script as disabled. I think that was a casting choice.
Meagan: When I say the word ‘disability,’ write down for me the first word that comes to mind.
Participants wrote: “Wheelchair.” “Deaf.” “Handicapped.” “Blind.”
Tara: I think on a visual level, this can be one of the most identifiable features.
Marty: If someone has a real [prominent] disability, it could be a fine line between showing it and mocking it.
Tony: If a handicap prevents someone from performing a role to it’s fullest, then they’re now compromising the writer’s vision, the director’s vision. The person’s handicap cannot be something that would change or compromise what the vision of that character is.
[Meagan hands out paper with stats about lack of disability on the screen.]
Meagan: Is this surprising? Something you knew?
Nate: Yeah, I think it goes back to what we’ve been saying.
Zoe: Has anyone seen Speechless? He’s in a wheelchair right?
Sandy: That character has more than one issue; he can’t speak.
Zoe: It’s a comedy, and it works. It got picked up for a second season.
Sandy: I would also say within this, is that part of the reason white men are cast in those roles is because people also don’t want to discriminate in a different way. So, like in stories a lot of times, if it’s a bad guy you can’t cast a black guy. They’re casting a white man. There are issues where if it feels like it’s gonna be negatively portrayed or something hurtful, it’s very much a thing where people go like, “Well we don’t want to make it an ethnicity because that seems like it’s gonna be really negative to them.”
Tara: There was this interesting situation on Friday Night Lights. One of the main characters actually becomes disabled, and you see how he became paraplegic. I think that could be hard with an actor if you are showing the before and after. I know with CGI it’s not impossible, but it could be hard to show.
Zoe: I think TV producers and the networks are trying because when a breakdown comes out, it will say, “We’re looking for real people who are blind, real people who are deaf, real people who are in a wheelchair.” I don’t know if they can actually find those actors, but I am constantly seeing that they want that.
Sandy: There is a movie The Hammer about the only deaf wrestler in the MMA Hall of Fame. The actors were all deaf. It came out about three years ago, and took about nine months to cast.
Tara: Yeah, you have to be a great actor before anything else.
Sandy: Yeah, I thought on The Hammer they did a nice job. That was the first time I’ve seen a film cast with a group of actors with disabilities.
Meagan: So, do you think there are people with disabilities looking to be actors, or–
Justin: Absolutely. I just think there aren’t enough to really break through on a massive level… I think a lot of disabled actors get pigeonholed into roles of disabled characters, with films that are less than good. But there are films that do stand out like The Hammer and Hunter Gatherer.
Kendra: An African-American actor can be excellent, but there [still may not be] enough work. And you can be disabled, be the best deaf actor in the world, but where are the roles?
Tony: You mentioned before things like Netflix and Hulu. I feel like those kinds of outlets that don’t need the enormous ratings that a network show needs, are salivating over all the kinds of things like transgender stories. Because with the kinda buzz they get, they don’t need to have a massive following. They just need to have a small but very invested, interested, and open-minded viewership. I have to imagine if there were a phenomenal disabled actor, they would jump at the chance to cast that actor and make that the selling point.
Sandy: A lot of people with mental-health [conditions] are hired all the time.
Mia: Writers and directors, too. There is a lot of mental instability… I’ve witnessed it.
Zoe: In the Millennial shows, like on Freeform, there’s always gonna be a token lesbian, a token transsexual, a token homosexual, there’s gonna be two African-Americans… It’s like clockwork. Does anyone watch Younger? It’s the new Sex In the City. There’s that one girl who is a lesbian one week, and straight the next. There’s an African-American guy who’s now sleeping with the white star, and there’s a gay guy…
Meagan: Are you saying it’s too prescribed?
Justin: I think it’s disingenuous, even if the intention is right. And going back to what we were saying about film, and what we were saying about credibility, sometimes if you lose the audience, you never get them back.
Meagan: I want to come back to something you mentioned: You said there aren’t roles for people with disabilities. Does that mean the role has to be about the disability?
Kendra: I don’t think so. If someone has a specific disability, does that count them out from just playing a role? This is probably not considered a disability, but I think of someone like Peter Dinklage (a little person), who does whatever the heck he wants. And I love that about him. But I’m not sure if there are really [that many] opportunities for that.
Marty: You have to address the person’s disability. If someone is playing a character and you’re not addressing their disability, people are gonna think something is wrong.
Tony: Like it has to be part of the plot?
Marty: You could confuse the audience, you could lose them, and I don’t think networks want to take that chance.
Justin: Peter Dinklage is only hugely famous now because of a hugely famous show Game of Thrones. He worked for decades in theater and independent film, and was largely unknown outside of the industry bubble. And now he’s a household name.
Tara: In a part that was written for him.
Kenneth: He’s extraordinarily talented. Talent rises to the top. It’s like if you’re deaf and you want to be in acting, I do think the pool is limited as you were saying casting wise. And does it get written into the script, or do you just let it be more subdued? It’s touchy, I don’t know.
Sandy: I think, too, with stories, not everyone knows a deaf person. Not everyone has a friend who’s blind, or has a world that includes [someone with a disability]. In my old office, a woman who had recently begun to use a wheelchair came to an audition. Last time I saw her, she was walking. We didn’t have a wheelchair ramp, and had to help her over a very small step. But I hadn’t thought about it, because I’m not regularly hanging out and seeing people in wheelchairs.
Zoe: Remember Glee? There were several people with disabilities. One of them was a girl who works all the time now. And the guy who used a wheelchair, he’s a dancer, he didn’t have any issues at all. I wonder why they didn’t use an actor in a wheelchair?
Meagan: You mentioned also having trouble finding somebody. Where do you go to cast?
Sandy: Well you just do whatever you need to do. If I need someone who’s Filipino I would reach out to anywhere you can imagine Filipino people would be. Same thing if I need a deaf person, I would look to deaf schools. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) has a disability division, and they will send out notices, but those are going out to people who are pursing acting through the appropriate channels. You might be a person who wants to do acting, but you’re not actually pursuing it, or don’t know how it works on a grander scale, and then the SAG division is not gonna reach you.
Tony: Maybe acting schools, academies should reach out with scholarships specifically to attract groups who don’t traditionally audition, and just foster a whole generation of people who are trained and have the ability. I would hate for it to get to the point where it’s like you’ve got a good actor who’s disabled, and a great actor who’s can play a person with a disability, because they’re probably gonna cast the great person who’s gonna be compelling.
Meagan: There are probably a lot of reasons why there hasn’t been tremendous progress in this area. What sticks out most to you?
Kenneth: The pool is smaller for diverse people.
Tara: There are times I’ve sat in a casting session, and there’s someone that I did not anticipate would be [right for] a part, and they just blew me away.
Lindi: I agree that the most talented person is probably going to get the part. So, if someone with a disability is auditioning, awesome, and if they’re the best they got it.
Tony: The flip side would be, the whole cast is great except for the one disabled person, and then the perception is that they were cast because they’re disabled, and now that becomes a referendum on the casting of all disabled people. But talent is talent is talent. Whether someone is disabled, black, male, female.
Meagan: How often are you seeing someone with a disability?
Tara: If someone is bi-polar, I’m not sure I’m gonna know that if they come and audition for me. Ideally, I don’t know that if the role doesn’t call for that. If they are a really good actor, hopefully they’re acting whatever the part is. And I think if a disability then becomes part of that part when that’s not [what it was intended], then it’s up to the creative team to determine whether that’s something they can include because the actor is so good or if it detracts from the part.
Sandy: I’ve certainly auditioned people and didn’t know that they had a [prosthetic] leg, for example. Obviously, if someone comes in a wheelchair, you know they’re in a wheelchair. And I’ve auditioned deaf actors before, but usually you know in advance if someone is coming and needs special services. But ultimately you’re asking people to come in and play a character for a story, and I believe in servicing the story.
Tony: I produce game shows, and probably the greatest game-show host of all time was Bill Cullen, who had polio. He would always be pre-seated behind this podium. But he was fine because he was the master of ceremonies, and it did not impact his ability. It depends on what the gig is, and if it’s something that either can be adjusted to accommodate that person, or if that role is specifically intended to have a disability in mind.
Meagan: There’s a whole list of reasons why people shouldn’t do it or why it’s difficult. Is it still something we should be trying to do?
Sandy: As in providing opportunities?
Choir: Certainly, of course.
Meagan: Give me your top two most compelling reasons why we should be more inclusive of people with disabilities in Hollywood.
Marty: I’m a straight guy who’s worked on RuPaul’s Drag Race for a few seasons. And that was great. At the time I knew nothing about drag. For me it was another gig. But at the end of the day I learned a lot. It’s nominated for eight Emmys this season alone. I think that people have a stigma of people in drag. But, at the end of the day it’s just a RuPaul act, and it’s a fun show. That show’s brought a lot of awareness to the modern zeitgeist.
Tara: To me it stems more from story as opposed to casting. So if you look at Will and Grace that show specifically stood out for its time because it introduced two gay men or a relationship between a gay male and a female, who made it acceptable by portraying it and understanding that this was a different kind of show. And Modern Family, because they were encapsulating this different aspect of a modern family, but for this to become a norm it has to start with stories being written about people with disabilities, and making it something that people think about everyday.
Zoe: I’m sure on every single TV show there’s an actor with a medical issue. But I’m sure people don’t talk about it because it’s just everyday.
Meagan: So part of it is the visual disabilities, which you are saying you don’t see as much. And then there are characters with disabilities whether it’s mental health or something else where it’s part of the storyline. But if you’re talking about increasing inclusion of people with disabilities on television or in film, there are other ways to do it.
Tony: That’s a good point because is it a debilitating illness? Like lupus for example; my mom has it, and I know that it affects her energy level. I don’t know with the case of Selena Gomez; is it like she can’t act in a normal eight-hour day or something?
Sandy: No she can. I cast her in a movie; she did just fine.
Tony: Okay, well as opposed to something that’s debilitating for them in terms of what they’re being asked to do on a daily basis.
Sandy: For me, casting is very story based; that’s the beginning of everything. Will and Grace was so unique and it just so happens that he is gay, and it was a big deal in certain moments, but only when he was dealing with an issue. Not because he himself was just walking around.
Marty: I agree with Sandy. My favorite show of all time is Six Feet Under. That show dealt with everything that Will and Grace and Modern Family did 10 fold and this was what, 2004 or 2005? People had disabilities, LGBT, interracial marriage between two men, who adopt a child. These are hot button issues today that they tackled back then. All of the characters had something. Some of them were mentally ill, some were psychopaths, and that’s the reality of the world we live in. It wasn’t just having someone with a disability to put a checkmark next to, but building a story around it.
Nate: Let’s go back to the authenticity of storytelling. In Degrassi: The Next Generation, Drake was in a wheelchair as a drummer, and that was what it was. They would talk about him and the disability, but it was not necessarily that he is disabled. He was just in a wheelchair.
Zoe: I think of Friends… That guy behind the bar; he was a recurring regular. And there are roles like that where you could have a disability and be on a show over and over again. And I think we will get to that. Everything takes time in the US.
Sandy: I think if we’re making a Vietnam war movie, we would have lots of people in wheelchairs, depending on what story we were telling. In a military movie there is always someone in a wheelchair that goes by.
Meagan: How often do you think that person in the war movie is actually a person in a wheelchair?
Sandy: I know there have been movies that have recruited actual vets. For some they have pulled actual vets for them. It serves more than one purpose.
Kendra: It’s funny that he mentioned Vietnam. I just happened to see Born On The Fourth of July a couple of days ago, and I knew all those actors. They were not disabled and they were playing characters that had lost an arm or a leg. There might have an extra in the background who was missing a leg, most of the actors had all of their limbs.
Tara: And win awards for acting with disabilities. You kind of have to ask: Why is Tom Cruise playing somebody in a wheelchair? But you have to think about the level of acting that you need.
Marty: But it also is a business and there is the star power that you need to draw an audience to movie. There is risk involved from a studio point of view.
Kendra: As an African-American, one of the things that drives me bananas is when someone who’s supposed to be black is played by a Latino or someone who isn’t black. Along those same lines, I wonder why would you not just choose the actual disabled person. One of my friends is doing a movie, and they are in the financing phase. Its about a deaf boxer; and the actor they have is deaf. And so he has been doing all of this training for boxing. They are actually going with him, and I am excited about it. I think people need to take more chances.
Sandy: You’re always casting with a limited time frame; you don’t have a year to hire people.
Zoe: Right. But if those people were available, would they even be able to play that part?
Meagan: So there also people coming out against non-disabled actors playing people with a disability. Films like Me Before You, where they came out very strongly against it, and there’s sort of that stick approach. There are awards for inclusion, and shaming for not hiring an actor with the disability. So a carrot or stick approach; which do you think is more effective?
Tara: The stick is like your mandating that you hire someone, is that what your saying?
Meagan: Or publicly shaming them for not doing it.
Tara: I think ideally it’s a combination of both. I look at the show Transparent, and Jeffery Tambor is not transgender, but does a beautiful job in that role; I think it’s made it very palatable for people to accept transgendered characters.
Kendra: I remember that movie Aloha, when Emma Stone was supposed to be playing an Asian Hawaiian, and it hurt the movie. So I’m wondering if the stick will help people make different decisions, or if they will keep doing whatever they want to do.
Tony: Something just occurred to me with the whole getting a high profile actor to play a minority, or someone with a disability which is kind of shining a light on that because they have the studio power. But what’s interesting to me is that how you had Dustin Hoffman playing a character in Rain Man who had autism. You had Jamie Fox playing Ray Charles and Al Pacino. Both played blind people in award-winning roles, almost entirely because they were playing an identity that was not their own. And so the public’s perception is: Oh what a stretch for them to play something like that. It’s almost uncomfortable now to think about it knowing people that have the disability. So they’re like: Oh I have this disability and this schmuck gets to win this award for altering himself in someway. Everybody is like: What a great way to shine a light. There are pros and cons to it.
Meagan: Interesting, I want to talk about ways where people could be encouraged to do it. Tony you suggested paid internships and scholarships, so talk to me about what that would look like.
Tony: I mean it would essentially be a way to give a person a slight advantage for a group that might not get that opportunity.
Meagan: In terms of training to be an actor or training to be behind the camera or training to be involved in some facet of the industry…
Tara: I wonder if you would notice that even more on the writing side of things. There are usually diversity requirements, and it’s usually when you hire a staff writer. And there is a fund that the studio or network pays for that that essentially makes that person free on your staff. So you can then have diversity on your staff, and you also get an extra writer.
Meagan: So some type of financial incentive in terms of training people to be in the industry. So these are acting students or people learning how to operate cameras, right? And so then also diversity hiring.
Zoe: They have diversity showcases but they don’t have showcases for people with disabilities.
Meagan: When you say showcase you mean?
Zoe: Acting showcases. Producers will come out to CBS, NBC, ABC, and they will have talent perform. There are people with disabilities among the talent.
Meagan: You mentioned that there are a lot of people in Hollywood with conditions in front of the screen, but we don’t necessarily know about it. Why not?
Marty: Let’s say for example if Brad Pitt were bipolar, why don’t we know that? I mean do we need to know that?
Justin: There’s a stigma and possibly issues with insurance.
Sandy: Plus I feel like people only talk about these things when it’s going to benefit something. If someone’s kid has something, the parent all of a sudden becomes the poster person for that.
Meagan: To any of the ones that are known within the bubble, are they provided any type of accommodations or support?
Nate: I think it would depend on how big of an actor or actress they are. That their staff member may be included in the price.
Sandy: If they have an issue that requires a dog, you have to provide accommodations for the dog.
Nate: If you had something that was worth telling the story and worth spending the money on–
Tara: Especially Switched at Birth, which is now on Freeform. It was two girls who were switched at birth, and one of them was played by a deaf actress. She was phenomenal. More stories about a subject make it feel more normal.
Meagan: Where do you currently go if you were specifically looking for people with disabilities; name names where do you currently go?
Sandy: There’s a place that represents just little people for instance… I have always just had to reach out to the community at large, and yeah you might represent disabled talent but you have five people, so it isn’t like: Oh I have this enormous database of people.
Tara: The thing is now there are a lot of things in place that require and encourage everyone to cast diversity, and I don’t think that is in place for disability.
Meagan: So what would you say is in place? What would you want to replicate as it applies to disabilities?
Tara: So when I cast a network comedy, we cast three white [typical] actors, and there was a fourth space, and they were like that has to be diverse. No ifs, ands or butts. And we found an awesome person for the role. But there was a very obvious choice that was not diverse, and they were like absolutely not… If there were mandates in place and incentives to higher disability, people would pay attention to that because suddenly they have to do that.
Meagan: But where does that mandate come from?
Tara: It comes from networks. It comes from the people buying the shows, and studios.
Sandy: SAG has a diversity contract, but it doesn’t include somebody with a disability.– But I also think the term disability is so broad as we discuss it today. I am thinking about it in a way I haven’t. –[For example,] You must have 20 percent [of hires] be African-American. You can basically look at someone and say you basically look African-American. If someone has lupus, it may not be so obvious. I’m like have I clicked my lupus box, but I feel like there’s a place to implement certain things…in terms of the disability spectrum.
Zoe: Here’s an idea for the people behind the curtain at all the networks: Have diversity directors whose responsibility is to and make sure those roles are in place. Perhaps they could add a disability director and/or a diversity director could do both jobs. And I bet you that’s something that, if we keep talking about this and moving forward at the networks, will happen.
Tara: I think [progress] also stems from shaming. Like right now CBS is being shamed because their entire fall lineup is white males, and I think that is a huge problem. There are headlines I have seen about it. They are just being raked through the coals among the entertainment industry, and if there was shaming about disability hires, I think you would start to see initiatives happen and people start to wake up.
by Pamela Johnson
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