Media Access — 24th Annual Awards

Circa 2007


From a deaf actor who overcame her fear of using her voice on camera, to a filmmaker who documented the life of a brother with Down’s syndrome, to a comedian with cerebral palsy who won NBC’s Last Comic Standing, the recent 24th annual Media Access Awards (MAW) celebrated those who often go unsung. The event drew a crowd of more than 500, some coming from as far away as Israel and Ghana.

Presented by the California Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the state Employment Development Department (EDD), the awards honored individuals, productions and companies that accurately portray people with disabilities in the media, and increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the entertainment and media industries. Past honorees include Aaron Spelling, Anthony Edwards, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Jane Pauley, Kirk Douglas, Melissa Gilbert, Patty Duke and Ray Charles.

The evening unfolded at Universal Studio’s Globe Theater, and began in true Hollywood fashion with a gourmet reception set outdoors in a backlot studio dressed as a quaint European street. After dining and mingling, attendees moved inside for the awards ceremony, presented with the assistance of numerous Hollywood performers and professionals. Made possible by donations from Union Bank of California, M Squared, Southern California Edison, Genentech, Paramount Pictures, CBS and ABC/Disney Television Group, the evening was a celebration of the important role the media and entertainment industries play in broadening the education of the general public, and promoting a society that understands and values the experience of disability.

Actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and came out publicly about it in 1998, received the Governor’s Award of Excellence. Musician Jose Feliciano took home the AFTRA Disability Awareness Award, while actor Robert David Hall of CSI received the AFTRA Disability Awareness Award. Hall has worked as an actor as well as a disability advocate since 1978, when he lost his legs in a car accident.

The Writer’s Guild of America West presented the Joan Young Award to writer Katharyn Powers, who lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; the Casting Society of America Award went to Fern Orenstein; and actress Deanne Bray got the Screen Actor’s Guild Harold Russell Award.

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Bray accepted the award as the first deaf actor to get the leading part in a television series for the show, Sue Thomas: F.B. EYE, based on the true story of Thomas, who worked for the F.B.I. as a lip reader. Bray said Thomas, on whom her character is based, had a hard time landing a job after college.

“In interview after interview, people would focus on what she couldn’t do, like talk on the phone, as opposed to what she could do. Later, she accepted a job at the F.B.I., not as a lip reader, but counting fingerprints—literally counting tiny lines—and Thomas knew she could do more than that.” Through a friend on the force, who discovered her talents, she got an opportunity to advance.

Bray, who has played Thomas for three seasons, described her initial fear of using her voice on screen when her agent told her about the part. During auditions, she saw hearing actors with acting coaches who tried to teach them to talk like someone deaf or hard of hearing. But Bray later learned that Thomas pressed for an actual deaf person to take the part, because a “deaf actor would deeply understand her path, her experience.”

It was compassion for his little brother, Danny, who has Down’s syndrome, that led Matthew Makar to spend a few years living in his parent’s basement to subsidize Yellow Brick Road. The film, which showed on HBO/Cinemax, took an award in the TV documentary category. The seeds of the idea germinated four years ago, when Danny was on the verge of quitting his acting group. He was frustrated at being typecast as an Oompa Looma in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and other productions, but Makar convinced his brother not to quit. He not only offered to film Danny and his troop’s performance, but also to give a special screening at a local movie theater.

In the Reality TV category, comedian Josh Blue won for his performances on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, where he bested a field of his peers. Blue, who has cerebral palsy, and playfully describes his comedy as “spastic and engaging,” is also a talented U.S. Paralympic soccer player. On Last Comic, Blue used humor to engage the audience openly about his disability, quelling fears, stereotypes, and insecurities. About his condition, he jokes: “I realize that people are going to stare, so I want to give them something to stare at.”

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In Reality TV, Little People, Big World received an award. Matt Roloff, whose family is depicted in the series, thanked the Discovery channel for “their courage to present our family story in a way that was non-sensational. Viewers didn’t necessarily need to be entertained, but could relate to us as little people and as fellow human beings.” The HBO documentary I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me gives voice to children living with the neurological condition characterized by repetitive, involuntary, vocal and motor tics that persist over time. Prime Time TV shows that received awards included My Name Is Earl, nip/tuck and The Office, the latter which makes fun of political correctness and hesitancies about approaching people with differences. In the TV commercials category, Ford Motor Company accepted an award for Bold Moves, which shows a soccer player jumping, kicking, scoring and then later removing a prosthetic leg.

Outstanding achievements in film included a documentary award for The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and for Outstanding Achievement in features, The Family Stone. The latter includes not only a character who is deaf, but who is also played by the deaf actor, Ty Giordano.

Several of the outstanding achievements in film were international, including documentary awards that went to Emmanuel’s Gift (Ghana), 39 Pounds of Love (Israel), and the short-film entry Nectar (Britain). Emmanuel’s Gift is the story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a Ghanaian youth who has fought for disability rights in his country, which are desperately needed as 2 million of the 20 million people there are disabled. His means of getting his message across: riding his bicycle more than 600 kilometers across Ghana—with a severely deformed leg. The doc 39 Pounds of Love, tells the journey of 34-year-old Ami Ankilewitz who, from a fatal form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, weights only 39 pounds. He confronts the doctor who diagnosed him as well as his own fate. While the short-film Nectar centers around an Olympic-caliber deaf swimmer in the year 1930. The latter project had the good fortune to get distribution with valueadded accessibility options unprecedented in Britain, including closed captioning, audio description for the blind and British Sign Language interpretation.

Finally, in the theater, Open Window was celebrated for being presented in sign-language to a hearing audience, who were provided with subtitles.

by Jacqueline Bowler

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